The New START treaty represents an obsolete approach to national security, a holdover from the Cold War when the Soviet Union was the primary threat to the United States. Today, America has more reason to worry about actual and potential nuclear-missile threats from Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and China. North Korea’s latest hostile acts against South Korea and reports that Iran has signed an agreement to deploy medium-range missiles in Venezuela are two recent illustrations of the multiple new missile threats facing the United States.
This bilateral treaty approach will become not only obsolete but dangerous if it leads the United States to ratify a treaty with Russia that weakens our ability to develop and deploy missile-defense systems against threats from such emerging nuclear states. The Senate is courting this danger as it evaluates whether to accede to the Obama administration’s urgent insistence that it take up the ratification of New START during the lame-duck session.
A central defect of New START is that the United States and Russia cannot agree on the meaning of core aspects of the treaty as they relate to the right of the United States to develop and deploy missile-defense systems.
The Obama administration publicly claims that New START does nothing to inhibit our right to develop and deploy missile-defense systems. At the same time, the Russian government publicly declares a completely opposite interpretation of the treaty, claiming that New START “may be effective and viable only in conditions where there is no qualitative or quantitative build-up in the missile defense system capabilities of the United States of America.”
Both interpretations cannot be true. And even as it protests that the Russians are wrong to interpret the treaty as limiting U.S. missile defense, the Obama administration is retreating from previous U.S. commitments to deploy missile-defense systems in Central Europe.
This weakening of missile defense by the Obama administration belies its words about vigilantly defending the right to upgrade America’s missile-defense capabilities. Moreover, the Obama administration’s determination to move toward ratification, notwithstanding Russia’s contrary interpretation of the treaty, is sending an unmistakable message of American weakness and lack of resolve to both friends and adversaries.
The right to develop American missile-defense capabilities, without limitation, is necessary to American national security and cannot be left ambiguous. Conflicting American and Russian interpretations about whether this right is limited by New START underscore the need to make this right explicit in the treaty.
Amending the actual treaty text is also the only way to reverse the message of weakness that is conveyed by any American toleration of a competing treaty interpretation by Russia. The amendment must explicitly state that the U.S. has the right to develop its missile defenses — both quantitatively and qualitatively — without limitation.
If the Obama administration believes that New START does not limit America’s right to missile-defense development, then it has no principled basis for opposing the addition of clear language in the actual treaty codifying this right.