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What are the consequences if START ratification fails?

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that President Obama’s strategic arms-control treaty with Russia will be eventually ratified by the Senate, with a smattering of reluctant GOP votes. But what if that doesn’t happen? The possibility of the treaty being rejected or stalled indefinitely is a real one. The center of gravity on the Senate ...

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that President Obama's strategic arms-control treaty with Russia will be eventually ratified by the Senate, with a smattering of reluctant GOP votes. But what if that doesn't happen?

The possibility of the treaty being rejected or stalled indefinitely is a real one. The center of gravity on the Senate side is around Sens. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, and John McCain, R-AZ, neither of whom has revealed yet which way they will vote. Interested but less-involved senators like Bob Corker, R-TN, are likely to follow their lead.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that President Obama’s strategic arms-control treaty with Russia will be eventually ratified by the Senate, with a smattering of reluctant GOP votes. But what if that doesn’t happen?

The possibility of the treaty being rejected or stalled indefinitely is a real one. The center of gravity on the Senate side is around Sens. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, and John McCain, R-AZ, neither of whom has revealed yet which way they will vote. Interested but less-involved senators like Bob Corker, R-TN, are likely to follow their lead.

It’s been reported that Kyl is in negotiations now, bargaining for concessions, such as more money for nuclear modernization or guarantees that missile defense won’t fall victim to the treaty. But in the end, there’s no assurance he will vote yes, and the treaty could be voted down or pulled from consideration. That would be a huge setback for U.S. credibility abroad and the Obama administration’s entire arms-control agenda, according to experts, former officials, and foreign diplomats.

"If this were to go down, the ripple effect consequences around the world would be the worst possible outcome we’ve seen since World War II," said former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican who currently co-chair’s Obama’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. "It would set in motion the disintegration of any confidence in the leadership of the two major nuclear powers to deal with this and it would set in motion a disintegration of any structural boundaries and capacities to deal with this. This would devastating not just for arms control but for security interests worldwide."

While New START is a deal between the U.S. and Russia, which account for approximately 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, its defeat would harm international efforts to later bring other nuclear powers into an arms-control regime, according to former Democratic Senator Gary Hart.

"The two of us have the greatest burden, but sooner or later we want to bring in China and our European allies that have nuclear arsenals and see how far we can go," Hart said. "But it must begin with us and the Russians, and if we turn our back… it’s a giant step backward and it would set back our diplomacy, foreign policy, and national security in serious ways."

Meanwhile, European allies are growing frustrated with the slow pace of the Obama administration’s arms-control agenda. Several European diplomats have told The Cable they are aware of the difficulties of Senate ratification but nevertheless feel they were given assurances by the administration and are looking to Obama to get it done.

"From the European point of view, nobody can understand why the START treaty has not been ratified," said France’s Ambassador to Washington Pierre Vimont, "When we send cables back home saying that START might not be ratified, they ask us ‘What have you been drinking?’"

Arms-control advocates are concerned that the basic agreement that was struck between nuclear and non-nuclear countries in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — that the "have nots" would forgo building nukes if the "haves" promised to move toward eliminating their stockpiles — is in jeopardy.

Some, like treaty supporter Sen. Richard Lugar, R-IN, argue that the basic idea of getting to zero nuclear weapons is so controversial, it shouldn’t even be part of the START sales pitch.

"I don’t fault … President Obama for talking about a world without nuclear weapons, but neither do I think it is a particularly good idea to express the process in that way," Lugar said. "Talk of ‘no nukes’ also invites opposition from those who see it as a sign of weakness in those who lack the backbone to face the world as it is. I don’t think that criticism is fair, but it’s out there."

A failure to ratify New START would not only risk the NPT and the goal of eliminating nukes, advocates of passage say, it would also spell trouble for the rest of the Obama administration’s arms-control agenda, including the president’s promise to seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and then pursue a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, which would seek to end the production of weapons grade nuclear material.

When the Senate last voted on CTBT in 1999, which was also the last time the Senate had a contentious debate over arms control, its defeat was a huge blow for the Clinton administration and no arms-control debates have been see on the Senate floor since.

"The alternative [to ratification] is no START treaty, no verification, a clear setback to U.S.-Russian relations and widespread questioning of U.S. ability to carry forth international agreements if we can’t get this treaty through," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World.

He said that CTBT would be a difficult treaty to ratify in any case, and after the November elections, the potential presence of more GOP senators will make it that much harder.

"The ultimate lesson of New START is that nothing’s easy," he said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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