Sometimes, coming late is just as bad as not arriving. Consider the Obama administration’s effort this week to conclude a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Moscow.
Begun in April of 2009, negotiations were supposed to produce a treaty before early December. Now the White House will be lucky if it can get something signed in time for the Senate to ratify it before the 2010 elections, and the treaty could easily get hung up in partisan debate. Because this risks undermining the administration’s initiative to reduce nuclear threats, the White House would be wise to initiate a complementary set of arms-control measures that don’t depend on the Russian government or Senate ratification for success.
The odds of START’s being ratified before November’s elections are hardly on the rise. The next round of negotiations begins today in Geneva. Whether they will settle how much Russian offensive-missile information the U.S. should be able to access and how much U.S. missile-defense information Russia should get is unclear. Then there are the START annexes — the detailed descriptions of the nuclear systems to be dismantled, their locations, and how their disposal will be verified. When asked how long these might take to negotiate, a senior White House official observed that the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) annexes took 18 months to finalize. One would like to think that it would not take that long with START, but it could take several months — possibly enough time to make ratification this year iffy.
Finally, there is the matter of Senate ratification itself. The first START agreement, signed July 31, 1991, took 430 days to ratify. Ratification of George W. Bush’s Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which was only three pages long and had the clear backing of the Republican Senate majority, required more than nine months. Even Senate ratification of the INF Treaty, which also enjoyed majority Republican backing and was largely uncontroversial, took a full five months. Certainly, if START and its annexes are not sent to the Senate before early May, its ratification could easily go past this November’s elections.
As it is, 41 Senators (all 40 Republicans plus one independent, Sen. Joe Lieberman) have warned President Obama that they are in no mood to approve START unless the White House supports a “significant” nuclear-weapons-modernization program. The Defense Department’s Nuclear Posture Review, which details U.S. nuclear-weapons requirements for Congress every five years, was due in December. The administration is divided and has asked for two extensions; the review is now due in March and may be delayed again. Complicating matters even further, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin is pushing to link missile defenses with offensive missiles in START, a potential killer provision for most pro-missile-defense Republicans.
Taken together, these developments spell trouble. Late this spring, President Obama will host an international summit in Washington to promote nuclear security (i.e., greater physical protection of nuclear weapons and nuclear-weapons-usable materials globally). Also, in May, the U.N. will host the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, which will consider President Obama’s list of nonproliferation ideas that he presented last September to the U.N. Security Council. Without Russian backing and clear progress on U.S.-Russian nuclear agreements, several key administration officials fear, neither of these events is likely to produce much in the way of results.
One idea senior officials are pushing — to “show progress” with Moscow on nuclear matters while START is stalled and before these international meetings are held — is to resubmit the U.S.-Russian civilian-nuclear-cooperation agreement that George W. Bush withdrew from Congress after Russia invaded Georgia. Since this nuclear agreement can be defeated only with a majority vote in both houses, its approval would pretty much be a slam dunk. However, resubmitting this agreement, which would allow for the export to Russia of U.S.-controlled civilian nuclear hardware and fuels, won’t be cost-free: At a minimum, it’s sure to revive earlier congressional complaints about Russia’s continued assistance to Iran’s missile and nuclear-weapons programs. Bringing it into force could easily sour Senate sentiment regarding START.
This worry has led some Obama-administration officials to consider playing an even riskier gambit to “show progress” — forcing the Senate to vote on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty before even submitting START. The odds of this agreement’s mustering the necessary 67 votes, though, seem much more remote than the chances of any START agreement.
What, then, should President Obama do?