In 1985, obstructionists and nuclear deal makers in Ronald Reagan’s administration fought pitched battles over the President’s divided mind. Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger and his allies appealed at every turn to President Reagan’s strong attachment to the Strategic Defense Initiative and his deep antipathy toward the Soviet Union. Secretary of State George Shultz and his allies countered by appealing to Reagan’s anti-nuclear sentiment and his confidence in heroic deal making. Paul Nitze was George Shultz’s Svengali.
The trick was to figure out a way to pull the antipodal tendencies in Reagan’s mind together, and to do so in a way that could not be opposed by obstructionists. Nitze proved up to this task.
Speaking at the Philadelphia World Affairs Council on February 20, 1985, Nitze unveiled a Reagan-blessed “strategic concept” that could be summarized in a mere four sentences:
“For the next ten years, we should seek a radical reduction in the number and power of existing and planned offensive and defensive nuclear arms, whether land-based, space-based, or otherwise. We should even now be looking forward to a period of transition, beginning possibly ten years from now, to effective non-nuclear defensive forces, including defenses against offensive nuclear arms. This period of transition should lead to the eventual elimination of nuclear arms, both offensive and defensive. A nuclear-free world is an ultimate objective to which we, the Soviet Union, and all other nations can agree.” [The text prepared for delivery was slightly different.]
Nitze proposed to operationalize this 1,000 word strategic concept into three time frames – a near term, a transition phase, and an ultimate phase. In the near term — a ten-year period – nuclear deterrence would remain very much in place. At the same time, the United States and the Soviet Union would undertake “radical reductions in the number and power of strategic and intermediate-range nuclear arms.” Research on the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative would continue during this time, “as permitted” by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
During the transition period to follow, the United States would increasingly rely on missile defenses, while also seeking the stabilization of the relationship between offensive and defensive nuclear arms. This transition period, which would be undertaken “as a cooperative endeavor with the Soviets,” could lead “to the eventual elimination of all nuclear arms.”
In order to prioritize and secure deep cuts in nuclear forces, Shultz and Nitze needed to impose criteria that would govern the deployment of U.S. missile defenses. Nitze did so in Philadelphia, announcing three common sense guidelines: missile defenses needed to be feasible, survivable, and cost-effective at the margin – meaning that an increment of missile defense needed to cost less than an increment of nuclear offense. “If the new technologies cannot meet these standards,” said Nitze, “we are not about to deploy them.”
In this sly and simple way, deal makers in the Reagan administration won their extended bureaucratic contest with obstructionists – although actual results would take a few years longer. The ambitious national missile defenses that Hawks were counting on to block deals could not meet Nitze’s common sense criteria. But how could obstructionists find credible fault with them?
Nitze went on to explain that the transition period could last decades, during which missile defense deployments meeting his criteria would be pursued and deployed “at a measured pace.” Deterrence during the transition would rest on a combination of nuclear arms and missile defenses.
As for the ultimate phase, “Given the right technical and political conditions, we would hope to continue the reduction of nuclear weapons down to zero.” Nuclear abolition “would be accompanied by widespread deployments of effective non-nuclear defenses” to guard against cheating and break out. Deterrence would then rest on the ability to deny a successful attack by defensive means: “The strategic relationship could then be characterized as one of mutual assured security.”
Nitze, as well as Reagan, had antipodal tendencies. Whenever he was on the outside looking in, he was a merciless critic of those who, in his view, failed to appreciate compelling complexities. And now, here he was, in an intense period of the Cold War, proposing a strategic concept that seemed utterly simplistic and naive. On the inside, the “Silver Fox” was an “inveterate problem solver… result-oriented to a fault,” in Richard Perle’s scornful characterization.
Nitze didn’t care about being exposed to criticism by the high priests of nuclear deterrence theory. He outranked them. The criticism was, in any effect, muted. Nitze was granted exceptional leeway to play this game. Deal makers and Doves saw great value in positioning SDI behind the queue of deep cuts, so they withheld their critical faculties. Hard-liners were stymied by Nitze’s hawkish credentials, and by a public line that they couldn’t oppose.
Nitze got the job done: His assignment was to find coherence in President Reagan’s divided mind. In so doing, he succeeded in making what he described as “a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” using SDI to secure deep cuts in nuclear weapons. National security adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane characterized this gambit as “the greatest sting operation in history.”
Only later did we learn that Nitze was not relying on simple artifice to achieve immense negotiating achievements. He, like Ronald Reagan, had come to believe in nuclear abolition and in transitioning away from a world threatened by nuclear excess. Some who sing Ronald Reagan’s praises – including Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney – now take a far different tack, finding fault with New Start Treaty because they feel uncomfortable about deeper cuts in nuclear arms that the Treaty mandates, the Pentagon approves, George Shultz endorses, and that Reagan himself would have applauded.
Romney & Co. also assert that New START limits missile defenses. This charge is utterly false. Missile defense constraints are no longer imposed by treaty, as was the case during the Reagan era. Nitze’s criteria, however, continue to apply. If Republican critics of New START succeed in blocking ratification on the basis of this repeated falsehood, they will invite budget cuts on their favored programs.
[Aspiring Wonks: If you want to read more about this period, try Strobe Talbott’s The Master of the Game, Paul Nitze and the Nuclear Peace (1988), from which these quotes are drawn.]