I appreciate Vice President Joe Biden much the same way I do habanero sauce: in small quantities and few places. While it can make a meal, it can also ruin it. I expect President Obama shares my sentiment. Notwithstanding Biden’s (nearly) off-mic proclamation about the passage of the recent healthcare bill, there was a much larger BFD this week (than non-reform-healthcare-reform) with the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (START II). Those of you older than college age will remember this pesky thing we once called the Cold War, where our collective fears were frequently if not systemically stoked by the idea that the US and Soviet Union stood poised to annihilate each other with nuclear weapons. (Remarkably, and an obvious illustration of how time flies, those college age or younger were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union.)
The signing of START II is a BFD not so much by what it achieves, but by the relative ease with which it was accomplished and by the general lack of media attention it has received. Indeed, as Thomas Blanton and William Burr at the National Archives pointed out in an email to me today, “the new START treaty signed today in Prague represents ‘real’ but ‘modest’ cuts in strategic nuclear forces comparable to some Cold War alternatives but still higher than the most far-reaching proposals considered by Presidents Reagan and Carter.” But, of course, this one got signed. Having read the archived correspondence between Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev that surrounded the negotiation of predecessor Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II (SALT II), I can assure you that these treaties don’t come easily. Correspondence and dialogue historically had all the trust and congeniality of an old married couple that have hated each other for the last forty years. The US and the Soviet Union lived with each other in a quasi-psychotic symbiosis characterized by institutional schizophrenia. Fortunately, the Soviet Union collapsed under its own internal contradictions, and as a result Medvedev/Putin and Obama live with less, or different, demons. If any president prior to Bush (41) had accomplished such an agreement in this manner, we would be witnessing a ticker tape parade similar to those that marked the end of World War II. Today, the launch of the iPad received much greater attention.
The larger issue of course remains: the ‘miracle’ of the Manhattan Project—nuclear weapons—remain in ample supply throughout the world and are the highest ambition of terror networks and unstable states. The next BFD is dealing with that reality. Next week, forty-seven nations will meet in Washington to sort out what might be done. As with his recent ‘re-conceptualization’ of the use of nuclear arms by the US, Obama deserves credit here too. Sam Nunn, former senator from Georgia and former security hawk, who now laments his support of nuclear arms development and heads National Threat Initiative (working to rid the world of ‘loose’ nukes) would like us all to view a new documentary, Nuclear Tipping Point (www.nucleartippingpoint.org). The message is chilling but credible: Will we choose cooperation or catastrophe? Will we allow terrorist networks and/or unstable states to turn our ‘miracle’ into further madness?
As much as we all wring our hands over domestic issues, and as much as they will decide short-term political futures, we need to take responsibility and attempt to put our ‘miracle’ back in the proverbial Pandora’s box. It is a BFD, and as impossible as it might seem, we must try, try, and try again.