The distant echo you heard one week ago wasn't just a nuclear device being detonated in North Korea. It was the sound of a naive and dangerous policy position toppled from its pedestal, shattering the delusion that America can contain the worldwide proliferation of nuclear arms by letting our own atomic arsenal fall into decline.
Boom goes an international test ban. Boom goes Barack Obama's fantasy of a nuclear-free world. Boom go the arguments against modernizing our own nuclear stockpile. Splat goes the egg on the faces of those who imagined the international arms race would end just because America opted out.
America's adherence to a never-ratified nuclear test ban is predicated on a false hope -- that our declining to test (and to modernize, since the two go hand in hand) would encourage similar restraint among other superpowers and superpower wanna-bes. The no nukes crowd assured us that by setting a good example, and putting our own nuclear program into mothballs, international tensions would ease and fewer nations would covet the ultimate weapon.
But our fine, upstanding example didn't deter North Korea from its nuclear ambitions. It will fail to dissuade Iran from testing, if Israel doesn't strike first. And it's only a matter of time -- as I predicted in this blog months ago -- before a resurgent Russia also returns to testing, as it pursues its own modernization effort.
That leaves America standing there, indignant but impotent, reduced to wagging its finger and delivering pious lectures, hypocritically, about the evils of other nations developing weapons it has had for more than 60 years. These other nations aren't going to sacrifice their national security interests because America will. It was folly to believe they would. A continuation of the nuclear arms race is inevitable. It's time to accept it and begin modernizing our nuclear weapons infrastructure and arsenal.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration is moving us in the opposite direction. While North Korea tests, Obama just proposed the de-funding of a program vital to U.S. modernization. His budget canceled the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, leaving the country with an arsenal of aging warheads whose safety and functionality will degrade over time. "The Administration proposes to cancel development of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) -- a new design warhead intended to replace the current inventory of nuclear weapons -- because it is not consistent with Presidential commitments to move towards a nuclear-free world," according to the budget.
Congress cut off funding for the program in fiscal 2009, at the behest of Democrats who understand that modernizing might eventually force a return to testing. Computer simulations can only get you so far when it comes to assuring warhead reliability. And this task becomes vastly more complicated, and problematic, as these very specialized devices age beyond their design life expectancy, as many are. Upgrading the arsenal would almost certainly require more testing, which would upset environmentalists and the nuclear disarmament crowd. They seem adamant about sticking with a test ban, even though events are proving that it isn't working as intended.
The no nukes crowd is bent on a course of disarmament by default; the gradual downsizing of America's arsenal by allowing it to fall into disrepair and decay. This policy is un-stated, naturally, but already well underway, as weapons are being removed from the field not because of treaty obligations, or any strategic plan, but due to uncertainty about their safety and reliability.
Congress shares responsibility for blocking modernization efforts. But Obama need not go along with this folly. Obama's budget also nixed funding for design work on the next generation bomber (which has a certain perverse logic, if you intend to let our nuclear weapons rot in place) and the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository in Nevada, which, although not directly linked to weapons work, brings a halt to the quest for long-term storage of nuclear materials.
All recent presidents have wished for a nuclear-free world. It's as much a part of the job as pardoning the White House turkey just before Thanksgiving. But all recent presidents until Obama also understood that this was a rhetorical exercise, given geopolitical realities. At a time when America should be showing the world resolve, Obama is signaling retreat. At a time when the arms race is back on, America is asleep in the starting blocks, confident that it's long lead in the race guarantees that deterrence will hold. What some Americans don't want to acknowledge is that this is a marathon, not a sprint. And we're still a long way from safely crossing the finish line.