This is the Washington Post's top line takeaway from President Obama's speech at the Brandenburg Gate today:
BERLIN — President Obama on Wednesday called for reducing the number of deployed U.S. strategic nuclear warheads by one-third if the Russian government agrees to a similar cut, reviving a goal outlined early in his presidency to work toward a world without nuclear weapons.
Obama’s proposal, which met with a cool reception in Moscow, came during a much-anticipated speech here that sought to shake Western nations from complacency that he said has taken hold since the end of the Cold War.
The nuclear zero pitch is one of those hits that Obama's retired from his live set for a while (then again, so was climate change talk, apparently because POTUS got spooked by dial testing, but it showed up in Berlin too with a reference to warming as the "global threat of our time.") In a triumph of hope over experience, I had hoped that its absence might have owed to someone deep in the bowels of the White House realizing how full-tilt crazy it is.
Let's start with the short-term goal. The Russians don't want to deal. Unless you're more concerned with applause lines than national security concerns, the conversation basically stops there. But let's assume for a moment that Vlad the Whale Impaler decided he was all goo-goo for the idea. At the end of the day, what do you get? Does anybody believe that the world is 1/3 safer with 1/3 reductions in the American and Russian nuclear arsenals? Both countries reportedly have around 4,500 warheads. I hate to turn away the president's complimentary Kool-Aid, but it seems to me that the conversation reaches a level of academic abstraction well before you get into the quadruple digits.
How about the long-term goal? "A world without nuclear weapons?" Ironically, the best argument I've ever heard against this stripe of utopianism came from an advocate of nuclear disarmament, former Clinton Secretary of Defense William Perry, who, in the documentary Nuclear Tipping Point notes "we cannot uninvent nuclear weapons. We cannot repeal E=MC2" (the relevant clip is at just after the 49 minute mark). It takes up about 15 seconds of that film and rebukes the other 55 minutes.
All that's required for nuclear disarmament to become a dangerous fool's errand is for at least one rogue leader anywhere in the world not to play along -- a situation it seems fairly likely will obtain into eternity. Perhaps nuclear disarmament is a beautiful dream, but it's a dream nonetheless. This is what happens when we conflate the means of aggression with the motivation. And it's what happens when we allow ourselves to believe, even for a moment, that the tendency towards darkness in the human heart can be remedied by speeches, diplomacy, and multilateral agreements.
It's a waste of time. And, through my jaundiced eye anyway, it betrays a fundamental lack of seriousness.