On April 8, in Prague, the United States and Russia signed what they call the “New START” bilateral arms-control agreement, important specifics of which, in hallmark Obama-administration fashion (see health care), were still being negotiated. Nonetheless, the president and his acolytes are calling for the treaty’s swift ratification.
The Senate would better protect our country’s future by actually deliberating before rushing over the precipice. A vital constitutional imperative, the Senate’s role in making binding treaty commitments, is at stake. While some consider it passé to insist that legislators read and understand what they vote upon, senators should insist on their constitutional prerogatives, drawing a line in the sand on this national-security issue.
In fact, there is no compelling reason for the Obama-Medvedev treaty, and there are many reasons to fear its impact. Since the still-incomplete text has just become public, continuing careful analysis will be necessary before we can come to definitive understandings and conclusions. Nonetheless, our very uncertainty lights the road ahead for arduous questioning, ranging from the assumptions of the negotiators to the consequences of implementing the treaty’s provisions.
But before turning to substantive issues, consider two significant process points: Senate timing, and the appropriate level of scrutiny for the Obama-Medvedev text; and the broader potential implications of rejecting it.
There is absolutely no need to rush the Senate-ratification process. Instead, given the strategic issues at stake, precisely the opposite is called for. Obscure phrases in treaty language, even in “technical” annexes, often mask extensive diplomatic bargaining records that must be understood, and the ramifications of seemingly innocuous phrases can be profound. Accordingly, senators must demand adequate time to examine the agreement’s full text, including its protocols and annexes, and hold sufficient hearings and informal briefings, in both open and classified sessions, rather than let themselves be frog-marched to a vote.
If the treaty is as beneficial as Obama claims, if the administration promptly provides the full text that the Senate is being asked to approve, if its language is clear, and if senators’ questions are answered fully and quickly, the question of how much time is required for adequate consideration will resolve itself. Only if it contains dangers and pitfalls that he wants to conceal should President Obama fear a comprehensive review of the agreement and its consequences. If significant questions or ambiguities require more information, then senators are entitled to as much time as necessary to understand the treaty’s implications before voting.
As to the consequences of rejecting the treaty, they are not even vaguely apocalyptic. Senators should understand that saying no to this agreement implies neither opposing all future arms-control agreements nor even opposing a subsequent, modified version of this treaty. Rejecting the text signed in Prague simply requires that negotiators return to the bargaining table, with instructions to Team Obama to do a better job. That is, after all, what the “advice” portion of the Senate’s “advice and consent” power actually means.
Substantively, the most appalling aspect of the Obama-Medvedev treaty is not its specific provisions, but what it reveals about President Obama’s national-security psychology. He has repeatedly said he believes lowering U.S. nuclear-warhead levels will encourage support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s weapons prohibitions on non-nuclear-weapons states. This is the purest form of theology, since the empirical evidence is entirely to the contrary. As the Cold War ended, Moscow and Washington made dramatic reductions in warhead levels, huge in percentage and absolute terms. Nonetheless, nuclear proliferation continued, and the pace is quickening. After START I and II, India, Pakistan, and North Korea tested nuclear weapons, and Iran rapidly approaches that point. Syria had a clandestine nuclear reactor until Israel destroyed it in September 2007. And if current and aspiring nuclear proliferators keep or develop weapons, this will encourage still more proliferation activity.
Approval of American disarmament in European capitals and American academic salons is not proof that disarmament strengthens international nonproliferation norms. In fact, Tehran and Pyongyang will conclude the opposite, namely that America is getting weaker, and react accordingly. Faced with the Obama mindset, Iran and North Korea are now more likely to fall all over themselves getting to the bargaining table. There seems to be no limit to what they would be able to extract from Obama’s negotiators, to our serious and perhaps permanent detriment.
As for the treaty itself, among the myriad lines of potential inquiry, take only its headline obligation, its seemingly easiest-to-grasp provision: the new limits on operationally deployed strategic warheads, with both sides capped at 1,550. The idea that the surface equality of the warhead limit is a positive result for the United States is based on belief in an entirely false symmetry. It is precisely the asymmetric capabilities and nuclear doctrines of the two sides — such as the circumstances under which they are prepared to use nuclear weapons, their unequal nuclear infrastructures, and their differing global commitments and capabilities — that require elaboration and understanding. What is not in the draft treaty may well be more important than what is. Merely for starters, here are eight issues about the warhead limits that senators should consider:
1. At a minimum, the bilateral equivalence at 1,550 represents a retreat from the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, which prescribed a range of 1,700 to 2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads, thus reflecting that one size does not fit all. The range provision was important to the United States, providing as it did both security and flexibility within the treaty’s terms. Moreover, both sides well understood that Washington would rest near the top end of the range, while Moscow, squeezed by a depressed economy and other problems, would be unable to do more than cling to the bottom end, perhaps even dropping below that. Therefore the Obama-Medvedev treaty, leaving all other questions aside, almost certainly will require the United States to bear the brunt of operational-warhead cuts, reducing us to Russian levels.
2. Equal warhead ceilings, particularly at the treaty’s very low levels, also ignore the different global obligations and responsibilities of Russia and America, and gravely threaten the strength and integrity of our nuclear umbrella. Russia has a legitimate interest in self-defense, but it is no longer a truly global power. Unlike the United States, it does not have a worldwide system of alliances, with dozens of countries explicitly or implicitly relying on its nuclear strength as a core element of their national-security policies. The risk of rips and tears in our nuclear umbrella is not simply that our allies will be less safe, although they will. Beyond that, several friends, concerned for their security, could feel impelled to develop their own nuclear-weapons capabilities. The treaty thus increases the risk of proliferation, exactly the opposite of what Obama believes as a matter of faith.
3. Low and equal warhead limits also ignore the two sides’ disparate, evolving technological and operational capabilities. Since the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, Russia has skillfully used global oil-price increases to upgrade and modernize its warhead stockpiles and delivery systems. In light of its limited financial resources, then, Russia has out-negotiated the Obama administration, by contriving to set treaty ceilings that it can reach, barely, and that actually allow it to increase its total number of delivery systems, substituting newer, more sophisticated platforms for many relics now in service. In stark contrast, the United States has done precious little for decades to modernize its warheads and delivery systems. America’s design and production infrastructure is declining in key respects, and the safety and reliability of our stockpile remains uncertain, as the heads of the three major national nuclear laboratories recently reaffirmed.
Thus, taking the Obama-Medvedev treaty in the context of the administration’s April 6 Nuclear Posture Review (“NPR”) and its related nuclear-infrastructure budget requests, the United States will find itself locked into low warhead and delivery-system levels on a declining trajectory of aging assets and capabilities. The NPR precludes development of new warheads, and the administration’s budget is palpably inadequate to maintain and upgrade existing capabilities. The Russians are meanwhile on precisely the opposite path: achieving their highest feasible targets for warhead levels with an upward trajectory of quality and modernization.
Obviously, this disparity in both new and upgraded warheads and delivery systems could be corrected in the future, but there is no sign President Obama will do it. Moreover, a future president who wanted to change course would have to overcome long years of decay and neglect, and the attendant window of vulnerability to Russian, Chinese, and other threats we can now only dimly predict. As high as today’s risks of implementing the Obama-Medvedev treaty are, the administration’s psychology will ensure that the dangers posed by both the treaty’s ceilings and our technological and operational inadequacies in the decades ahead are even worse.
4. “Counting rules” seem the most arcane of arms-control subjects, “technical” matters in incomprehensible treaty annexes. Nonetheless, counting rules often reveal the most significant impacts of the headline treaty provisions. The Obama-Medvedev treaty is no exception.
START and earlier treaties, without fully satisfactory verification, relied upon attributed warhead levels. For example, a MIRV’d Russian missile, believed capable of carrying ten nuclear warheads, would count as ten warheads for purposes of treaty limits even if the missile actually carried fewer. Importantly for U.S. conventional capabilities, the Treaty of Moscow discarded this cumbersome, inaccurate approach and counted only warheads operationally deployed. Confusingly, the Obama-Medvedev treaty mixes both kinds of counting rules. At a minimum, the Senate needs to understand fully the implications of this mix-and-match approach, which are currently obscure.
Take, for example, the treaty clause that each heavy bomber will count as one deployed warhead, regardless of what the bomber actually carries or is capable of carrying. This provision may in fact benefit the United States by keeping our warhead levels up, thanks to our current advantage in heavy-bomber capabilities. Nonetheless, we must ascertain whether there is a corresponding advantage elsewhere for Russia, and whether Moscow will soon deploy new bomber capabilities, as it has been recently boasting. Asked about the heavy-bomber issue on March 29, Ellen Tauscher, the under secretary of state for arms control, was incapable of answering: “Question: But you won’t talk about why you took that approach? Tauscher: Well, it’s the approach that we both agreed to.” Indeed. This is why the Senate needs time to scrutinize and understand counting rules and much more.
5. Closely related is the treaty’s impact on using launch platforms to deliver conventional warheads, which is extremely important for us. The Treaty of Moscow’s break from traditional counting rules, and its omission of “sub-ceilings” for specific categories of delivery systems, significantly facilitated such usage, substantially enhancing our overall weapons-delivery capabilities. It legitimized what the Pentagon already wanted to do, freeing up delivery systems once almost exclusively reserved for nuclear payloads, facilitating their use for conventional-payload delivery, and proving extremely helpful in Iraq and Afghanistan. By contrast, the Obama-Medvedev treaty, which returns to both START counting rules and sub-ceilings on delivery platforms, is much more constraining on the United States than either the Treaty of Moscow or the earlier iterations of START.
This limitation will be felt almost exclusively by the United States, since Russia’s current delivery capacity is barely sufficient even for its nuclear warheads. The treaty thus transforms a substantial U.S. superiority in conventional-warhead delivery into an equivalence with Russia, with no visible offsetting Russian concessions. Moreover, we do not want to find that by committing delivery systems in conventional conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq we have gravely impaired our nuclear-deterrence capability. Other treaty language (for example, the Fifth Agreed Statement in the Protocol, precluding rapid-reload capabilities for ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles) reinforces this dilemma, and requires exacting inquiry.
6. The Obama-Medvedev treaty does not limit tactical nuclear weapons, which Russia possesses in substantially greater numbers than the U.S. While we do not necessarily want a treaty encompassing both strategic and tactical warheads, lowering our strategic capabilities to levels not seen in half a century dangerously enhances the threat of Russia’s lead in tactical nuclear weapons to nations around its periphery. This alone is a potentially dispositive ground for Senate rejection of the treaty. Of course, Obama could propose to increase U.S. tactical nuclear capabilities to compensate, but who believes there is any chance of that?
7. Verification issues, critical specifics of which are in the still-under-negotiation annexes, remain substantially unclear. Moreover, while important in any arms-control treaty, verification becomes even more important at low warhead levels. Failing to detect violations at high levels is an obvious pitfall, but at low levels, one side’s noncompliance can give it a huge relative advantage that is difficult or impossible for the other to make up in the short term.
At present, we know only that we have lost important START requirements for on-site inspections, telemetry exchanges, and production monitoring. It remains unclear exactly how these derogations from START inspection obligations will impede our detection of potential Russian violations. Ironically, President Obama once stressed the importance of ratifying a successor to START before its Dec. 5, 2009, expiration, precisely to preserve START’s verification provisions. Not only did he fail to meet that objective, he now derides START’s verification rules as cumbersome and unnecessary. A simple one- or two-year extension of START’s verification provisions could have sufficed while negotiations continued, but the administration’s desperation to progress toward its utopian goal of “nuclear zero” stood in the way. Now we not only have had a four-month (and growing) period with no treaty verification whatsoever, but we have abandoned verification concessions wrung from Russia in prior negotiations.
8. Finally, Russia’s unilateral statement accompanying the treaty explicitly states that a qualitative or quantitative increase in U.S. missile-defense capabilities would constitute grounds for Moscow to withdraw. The Obama administration argues that this unilateral assertion does not bind the United States. Although the assertion is true at a superficial level, in a far more profound sense Russia’s position handcuffs Obama, perhaps in a way he enjoys, by preventing him from doing much, if anything, to enhance homeland missile defense. The president has proclaimed the treaty a huge victory, and it would defy reason to think he would invite Russian withdrawal in the near future. Thus, to preserve his precious treaty, he has given Russia a de facto veto over U.S. missile-defense plans. This national humiliation, because it is implicit, in some ways is worse than an express surrender in treaty language: Obama thinks he can conceal it from his countrymen. But no senator should have any illusions. Advances in missile defense are now effectively impossible if this treaty enters into and is to remain in force.
Moreover, senators should relentlessly probe the implications of the treaty’s preambular language “recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms,” and the equally vague and troubling assertion “that the interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced.” This linkage has long been Russia’s view, and the Bush administration rejected it. Including it in the treaty is thus an important advance for Russian efforts to prevent effective U.S. homeland missile defense. In fact, the treaty precludes converting ICBM launchers, such as missile silos, to use for missile-defense purposes, which certainly reads prima facie as a limitation.
Most important, the Senate must go outside the treaty’s text, to ascertain whether there are any U.S.-Russian side deals, understandings, or winks and nods entirely separate from the actual treaty. This is not a time for word-parsing and diplomatic nuance. Senators must insist on the fullest White House disclosure of what it and the Kremlin have discussed and agreed to concerning missile defense, in whatever form or fashion.
If, as we have seen, even the simplest, most apparently straightforward of the Obama-Medvedev treaty obligations is problematic, its many other provisions must be fully exposed to public scrutiny. Here, the Pentagon’s role is crucial.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen support the treaty. Manifestly, we would not expect them to say otherwise and still hold Obama-administration jobs, although perhaps they are also fully in tune philosophically with the treaty. But other Pentagon officials will soon also testify publicly, with their reputations and careers on the line. Those uniforms are Obama’s most powerful and perhaps his only significant argument in favor of constraining our military capability under the guise of enhancing national security. Although ratification is ultimately a political and not just a military decision, senators need to probe the circumstances behind Pentagon support for this treaty — to assess its reality, its depth, and the assumptions on which it rests.
We need to know, among other things, what military officials really think about the adequacy of projected budgets to ensure the existing nuclear stockpile’s safety and reliability. What do they believe now that the Obama administration has axed projects such as the Reliable Replacement Warhead, and limited other programs to upgrade or develop new warheads and delivery platforms? How truly comfortable, strategically, is the Pentagon with delivery-platform limits that affect our conventional- as well as nuclear-warhead capabilities? Does the treaty-withdrawal provision afford an adequate exit ramp? And finally, what exactly are future plans for homeland missile defense?
If administration press conferences on the treaty are any indication, senators could leave the upcoming hearings more confused than when they entered. Many potentially dispositive questions are not likely to be answered in the stylized, set-piece theater of formal Senate hearings. Nor will even massive numbers of “questions for the record” from senators after the hearings suffice, although they have their place. Instead, extensive pre-hearing give-and-take and briefings, with political, military, nuclear, and intelligence-community experts, will be necessary for all senators — not just Foreign Relations Committee members. House members should join in, given the long-term national-security interests at stake.
As the foregoing, much-abbreviated analysis shows, we have only begun to consider the implications of the Obama-Medvedev treaty, especially against the backdrop of Obama’s incessant, utopian rhetoric about a nuclear-free world. Any assertion that this agreement must be ratified quickly and casually is contrary to U.S. national security, and should be treated accordingly. Now in fact is the time for some profiles in courage.
– John Bolton, a former U.S. representative to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Surrender Is Not an Option, a memoir of his tenure at the U.N. This article first appeared in the May 3, 2010, issue of National Review.