Is the Treaty of Moscow a Good Deal?

News Abroad

Mr. Lambers is the author of "Nuclear Weapons" (2001) and a writer for the History News Service.

Less is more.

While this adage has not always been U.S. policy when it comes to nuclear weapons, it is the theme of the nuclear arms reductions agreement signed between the United States and Russia.

This new agreement will shrink the strategic nuclear arsenals of both nations to between 1,700 and 2,200 weapons apiece. According to President Bush,"The treaty will liquidate the legacy of the Cold War."

The premise of the agreement is simple: fewer armaments make more peaceful and prosperous relations. And if you flip through the pages of American history, you'll see that this approach has worked before for the United States. In fact, you'll find an interesting comparison dating back nearly 200 years.

Different times. Different weapons. But the same theme -- less is more. Naval forces on the Great Lakes played a significant role in the War of 1812. Control of the lakes was a must for any hope of victory. A massive buildup of warships on both sides played itself out in critical battles on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain. After the war had ended, naval forces from both sides still rode the waves of the Great Lakes.

After the War of 1812, America's secretary of state, James Monroe, was instrumental in convincing the British foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, that disarmament of the lakes was in the best interest of both countries. In 1817, the United States and Great Britain concluded the Rush-Bagot Agreement (named for the British minister to the United States and acting Secretary of State Richard Rush), which demilitarized the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain by ending military shipbuilding there and calling for the disarmament of existing warships.

What better way to promote peace than to demilitarize what had been a war zone just years earlier? The agreement of 1817 was a significant step toward improved relations between the United States and Britain. Today, it is a relationship we take for granted, but in the early 1800s that relationship was one of conflict and bloodshed. Nor did the United States and Britain graduate to the friendship of today immediately following the War of 1812. The growth of their strong alliance was a gradual process of which the Rush-Bagot agreement was a significant part.

We can see signs of a similar relationship emerging between the two great Cold War adversaries in this past week's events. The legacy of the Cold War left nuclear weapons as one of its centerpieces. Both the United States and Russia accumulated stockpiles of more than 20,000 nuclear weapons (both tactical and strategic) during their power struggle. Fear of a nuclear holocaust hung over the world for almost 50 years.

Today, both powers hope nuclear weapons reductions will help lead to improved relations. Those relations have been strained in recent years by the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty, which prohibited missile defense, and development of a missile defense system.

At the time of the Rush-Bagot Agreement, a statement in the Times of London read,"No wiser act was ever agreed upon than to the limitation of the naval forces on the Lakes." The same holds true for the United States and Russia today. There couldn't be a wiser act than to reduce nuclear stockpiles. Such an agreement establishes trust and peaceful intentions, and lays the groundwork for further nuclear arms reductions.

Just off the waters of Lake Erie, an international peace memorial stands to inculcate the lessons of international peace by arbitration and disarmament. The waters of Lake Erie are calm now, far removed from the fierce naval battles of the War of 1812. We know that the Rush-Bagot Agreement was one with long-lasting and positive implications. Only time will tell what the impact of the U.S. and Russian agreements on nuclear arms will be. We can only hope that another peace memorial will somewhere stand one day in honor of these Russian-American efforts.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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William Lambers - 12/29/2002

We'll have to let time be the judge of the treaty. If it helps lead to further nuclear disarmament agreements then it is a significant achievement in the field of arms control. Also, if it leads to improved Russian-American relations that cannot be ignored. After all, peace and harmony didn't come overnight with the British and Americans in the 19th century. It took many years including many agreements to solidify that.


Stewart Riley - 5/30/2002

In general, I agree with Mr. Lambers' assertion that arms reduction between former adversaries is a good thing. The precedent of the Rush-Bagot Agreement, however, calls some of the provisions of the current U.S.-Russia deal into question. Mr. Lambers refers repeatedly in his article to reduction of stockpiles on both sides, but that is not what the treaty stipulates. Though much of the press coverage has glossed over the fact, this treaty only dismantles deployed weapon systems and returns the components to stockpile. Stockpiles on both sides remain as large as ever. The Russians' original negotiating demand had been for destruction of warheads, but that was struck out of the final treaty at the insistence of the Bush Administration. Unlike the Rush-Bagot Agreement, which did stipulate the destruction of the weapon systems, this is simply a stand-down agreement. We maintain the nuclear forces involved but remove them from active service, rather like mothballing the Great Lakes fleets instead of dismantling them. It is not that this treaty is bad, but it is hardly the great advance in arms control that the popular press, and Mr. Lambers, portray.