The end of the Cold War has spawned a lot of surprises that no one could have imagined, one of those being the mass nuclear-amnesia that has afflicted most of the civilized world. This has become painfully obvious in the recent debate over U.S. missile-defense installations in Eastern Europe.
Consider last week's Economist editorial "Vlad and MAD," the magazine's latest in a string of "get tough with Russia" articles. The editors point to Putin's pre-G8 summit statement that Russia would respond to the stationing of ABM systems in Poland and the Czech Republic by targeting Eastern Europe with nuclear rockets as a sign that, "The era of mutual assured destruction (or MAD) which supposedly ended when the red flag came down, could return."
That the MAD "era" ended in 1991 would be news to U.S. and Russian nuclear launch commanders. Since the end of the Cold War, neither side has even for a moment removed its missiles from their pre-'91 hair-trigger footings. MAD did not end with the Cold War because MAD was not an "era," a state of mind, a policy, or even a doctrine. MAD is a fact, one that exists when two mature nuclear powers face each other across oceans armed with a triad of nuclear missiles, bombers, and submarines. MAD simply means that if one side surprise attacks, the other side can mount a devastating second-strike in response. Not so long ago, every schoolboy and girl understood this. Now, apparently, even Economist editors can't keep their Armageddon acronyms straight.
The magazine is right about one thing. There is indeed a quiet revolution in MAD afoot; it's just not the one evoked in "Vlad and MAD." Quite the opposite. The biggest news concerning MAD since the fall of the Iron Curtain is not its sudden revival under Vladimir Putin, but its systematic burial under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
While burying MAD is a worthy and necessary goal, there is a right way to do it, and the American way.
When the Bush Administration announced its decision to scrap the 1972 ABM Treaty in 2001, Moscow squealed. But, as with the current flap over missile defense installations in Eastern Europe, the Russian response was only partially about the nascent missile defense system. There was also a 500-pound MAD gorilla in the room. Russia's initial and ongoing opposition to missile defense should be considered within the larger context of NATO expansion into former Warsaw Pact countries and Soviet republics, the modernization of U.S. conventional and nuclear forces, and the deterioration of the same in Russia.
What this amounts to has been termed, "the rise of U.S. nuclear primacy."
If this phrase rings a bell, it's because of the small firestorm created last year when two American academics, Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, published "The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy" in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. The authors argued that the United States is consciously refining its nuclear forces so as to be able to knock out Russia's rump arsenal and command and control system, thereby achieving first-strike capability, or "primacy," for the first time since the early 1960s. They do not argue or imply that such an attack is in the offing, but merely state that the looming fact of U.S. nuclear primacy is potentially destabilizing and is essential to keep in mind when framing flashpoints in the U.S.-Russian security dialogue - flashpoints like missile defense. Since this larger context has gone missing lately, with U.S. officials and editorialists haughtily dismissing Russian concerns as "ridiculous" and "anachronistic," it seems like a good time to revisit their article.
Lieber and Press marshal publicly known information about U.S. and Russian nuclear forces to make their case. Against a post-Cold War background of a shrinking and rusting Russian nuclear triad,
The U.S. nuclear arsenal has significantly improved. The United States has replaced the ballistic missiles on its submarines with the substantially more accurate Trident II D-5 missiles, many of which carry new, larger-yield warheads. The U.S. Navy has shifted a greater proportion of its [nuclear subs] to the Pacific so that they can patrol near the Chinese coast or in the blind spot of Russia's early warning radar network...