It’s About Time We Got START
Why did such an uncontroversial treaty have to be so political?
Bipartisanship has been in short supply in America these days, to put it mildly. Over the past year, health care reform, financial regulatory reform, and energy legislation have all met fierce resistance on Capitol Hill, where the mood has too often been one of distrust, reflexive opposition, and frustration. Fortunately, this spring the Senate was handed an opportunity to demonstrate its ability to work together on at least one issue of critical importance -- arms control -- in the form of New START, the United States' latest nuclear reductions treaty with Russia. And in an important first step Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee demonstrated that bipartisanship is not dead yet.
Bipartisanship has been in short supply in America these days, to put it mildly. Over the past year, health care reform, financial regulatory reform, and energy legislation have all met fierce resistance on Capitol Hill, where the mood has too often been one of distrust, reflexive opposition, and frustration. Fortunately, this spring the Senate was handed an opportunity to demonstrate its ability to work together on at least one issue of critical importance — arms control — in the form of New START, the United States’ latest nuclear reductions treaty with Russia. And in an important first step Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee demonstrated that bipartisanship is not dead yet.
Traditionally, such treaties have garnered overwhelming Senate support, even in uncertain and polarized times. On Thursday the committee, by a bipartisan vote of 14 to 4, approved a resolution of ratification providing our advice and consent to New START. Three of those 14 votes came from Republicans.
The question now is whether we can seize this moment and push ahead with finalizing a treaty that reaffirms American leadership on nuclear issues — or whether the ideological obstructionism and political rancor that has plagued so many other issues surfaces in connection with one of our most pressing national security challenges.
New START, which U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed in April, limits the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads apiece. It also places caps on missiles and bombers, as well as launchers like missile silos. Under the existing Moscow Treaty, negotiated by George W. Bush, each country is permitted to deploy between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads, so some see this new treaty’s reductions as modest. And it is true: This is no disarmament pact. But when you’re talking about nuclear weapons, even modest agreements can be significant.
New START continues 40 years of nuclear diplomacy, which was first aimed at ending the arms race — and then at reversing it. By eliminating redundant weapons, the agreement continues the cuts that Ronald Reagan initiated when he signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987 and began negotiations on the original START Treaty. Even if America’s relationship with Russia is now strong enough that neither side fears an attack from the other, it still makes sense for the nuclear superpowers — our two countries possess some 90 percent of the world’s atomic weaponry — to establish clear limits on their arsenals. The predictability that stems from having such limits, along with the transparency provided by the monitoring and verification provisions contained in New START, produces stability that will make any future crisis less dangerous.
Of course, because it reinforces U.S.-Russian relations, the treaty makes it less likely that any crisis will arise in the first place. Those improved ties will have other benefits as well. Already, in the past five months Russia has begun allowing our forces to transit its territory on their way to Afghanistan, it has suspended a deal to sell Tehran advanced anti-aircraft missiles, and it has supported a U.N. resolution further sanctioning Iran for its nuclear activities. Friendlier relations will also facilitate vital initiatives, like the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which are designed to keep weapons and fissile material out of the hands of terrorists — our top national security priority.
Indeed, New START may be most valuable in helping to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states and terrorists. Under the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which was opened for signature in 1968, the five states that then had nuclear weapons were allowed to keep them, while signatories that did not have nuclear weapons agreed never to develop them. The non-nuclear states agreed to this asymmetric arrangement for several reasons — not least that the nuclear states agreed to work toward the eventual abolition of atomic weapons. Over the decades, that commitment has become increasingly important to the non-nuclear states, and we need their help to enforce various counterproliferation efforts, like sanctions and interdiction.
The cuts in New START thus help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons by demonstrating America’s commitment to our NPT obligations and encouraging the cooperation of non-nuclear states. This spring, for example, the increased credibility we got from signing New START helped us to isolate Iran at an international conference reviewing implementation of the NPT and to prevent it from deflecting attention from its illicit nuclear program. If we reject this treaty, however, the United States would lose credibility, Iran would be better able to cast the United States as a source of international instability, and other nations would question our intentions. After all, what, they would ask, do we really need all these nuclear weapons for?
New START’s aims are not controversial — few Americans, Republican or Democrat, believe that we really need 2,200 nuclear weapons today. What’s more, politics has generally played a minor role in strategic arms control. The Senate approved the INF Treaty 93 to 5, the original START accord 93 to 6, and the Moscow Treaty 95 to 0.
Despite the history of bipartisan support for strategic arms control, the Foreign Relations Committee never assumed easy approval of New START. Instead, we engaged in a rigorous review. We held 12 hearings, featuring more than 20 witnesses. Some, like the treaty’s negotiators, testified multiple times. Many — like Henry Kissinger, James Baker, James Schlesinger, and Brent Scowcroft — are Republicans with deep experience in arms control. We scrutinized the text of the treaty, its protocol, and its three technical annexes. We reviewed a National Intelligence Estimate on the agreement, a State Department report on its verifiability, and an analysis of Russian compliance with past arms control treaties. Throughout this process we asked tough questions — and we got answers.
Initially, some feared that the treaty, whose purpose is to limit offensive weapons, would also inhibit effective missile defenses. But this fear was put to rest by the military witnesses who testified to the committee. Each of them said the treaty doesn’t limit our missile defense efforts in any meaningful way. Anybody who still opposes New START because of alleged restrictions on our missile defenses needs to explain why his military judgment on this issue is better than the general heading U.S. Strategic Command, the general directing the Missile Defense Agency, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the secretary of defense, who was appointed by George W. Bush, a president deeply committed to missile defense.
Critics also questioned New START’s verification provisions, which they say are not as stringent as the original treaty’s. But several monitoring provisions of the new treaty mark significant improvements over the original agreement. For one thing, each missile and bomber will be given a unique identifying number that allows us to track it more easily. For another, our inspectors are going to be able to actually count the number of warheads on each missile, whereas before they had to infer the number of warheads (because they could count only the number of delivery vehicles).
Critics of this treaty’s verification regime are also faced with two argumentative hurdles. First, not a single Republican senator opposed President George W. Bush’s Moscow Treaty even though it contained no verification provisions whatsoever. And, second, the verification provisions established by the treaty, which include 18 short-notice on-site inspections each year, are significantly better than what we have now, which is nothing. Since the original START agre
ement expired in December, U.S. inspectors haven’t had the right to visit Russian facilities.
The other big issue that has come up is the modernization of the facilities responsible for ensuring that America’s nuclear weapons are safe and effective. As we reduce the number of weapons we have, it becomes ever more important to make those we retain are reliable. Which is why the Obama administration has outlined a plan to spend $80 billion over the next 10 years to upgrade the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. That’s a 15 percent increase over baseline spending, even after accounting for inflation. Bush’s chief nuclear weapons official has said that he would have "killed" for next year’s budget. And the directors of the nation’s three nuclear weapons laboratories have said they are pleased with the recommitment to their work and satisfied with the $7 billion proposed for 2011. (Under the Bush administration, the labs were forced to lay off thousands of workers.)
Most thoughtful skeptics have been reassured by these answers, and the support for the treaty from outside the Senate has been overwhelming. In all, six former secretaries of state, five former secretaries of defense, the chair and vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, and numerous other distinguished Americans have said how important it is that we approve New START. Last month, seven former heads of U.S. Strategic Command and Strategic Air Command sent the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees a letter urging approval of the treaty. And, just last week, George Shultz, President Reagan’s secretary of state, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal explaining how New START builds on the legacy of past arms control treaties, providing crucial visibility into Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
What’s more, over the past weeks my colleagues and I have worked hard to address remaining concerns. Last month, we postponed the committee vote for six weeks to give members more time to review the extensive record we had compiled. And early this month, members were encouraged to contact Senator Richard Lugar, the committee’s ranking Republican and a respected arms control expert, and me with their comments on a draft resolution that I circulated to get discussion started, knowing that there was room to address Republican concerns. In discussions with Senator Lugar and two of his Republican colleagues, Senators Bob Corker and Johnny Isakson, I made clear that we welcomed and needed their input. And by Thursday morning, we had a draft that reflected views from both sides of the aisle.
Nevertheless, some Republicans still oppose this treaty. At first blush, the reason for this opposition seems to be fear that the Russians might gain nuclear superiority. But that notion is not only anachronistic — remember, the Cold War is over — it’s nonsensical. What exactly would the Russians do with a nuclear "advantage"? After all, no matter what weapons the Russians build, we would still be able to destroy their country many times over with the 1,550 warheads we will retain under the treaty. Ironically, the more you worry about the Russians seeking advantage, the more important it is to have limits on their weapons. And the less you trust them, the more important it is to have intrusive verifications measures in place, so that we can better detect any threatening developments.
In trying to understand the opposition, then, we are left with two options.
The first is that ideology is trumping reason. Although the history of Republican support for arms control is deep — each of the treaties I mentioned above was negotiated by a Republican president — the history of right-wing opposition to arms control is deep as well. Some conservatives believe that the United States should never bind itself through international agreements, even though in a nuclear world our security is dependent on cooperation. (How, for example, can we prevent terrorists from acquiring Russian fissile material without Russian help?) During the Cold War, this ideological conviction led some to fight the ban on atmospheric nuclear testing, to oppose negotiation of the NPT, and to compare Ronald Reagan to Neville Chamberlain when he signed the INF Treaty. It is an approach to foreign policy that has done little for our national security.
The second option is even more disturbing: that opposition to the treaty is political. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has actually touted his opposition to START in a letter to raise money for his 2012 presidential campaign — a cynical ploy that seeks to exploit public fear of nuclear weapons. And there are some politicians — whether they are running for reelection or whether they oppose other parts of Obama’s agenda — who would welcome the chance to deny a Democratic president a victory.
But this treaty is not about Barack Obama — it is about the safety of the American people. That is what every senator has sworn to protect regardless of party affiliation. The Foreign Relations Committee has always worked best when it has left politics at the water’s edge. Now it is time for the full Senate to adopt the same bipartisanship demonstrated by the committee and approve New START without delay.
More from Foreign Policy
Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak
Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage
The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.
The West’s False Choice in Ukraine
The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.
Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.