Politics & Policy

New START: What’s the Hurry?

The Obama administration is using New START to “reset” our relations with Russia and to demonstrate its commitment to disarmament.

This Thursday, Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, intends to force a vote on New START, moving the resolution of ratification to the Senate floor for a final vote. Although only a handful of witnesses requested by the Senate minority have been called to testify on the treaty’s merits (we were among them), serious criticisms of the treaty’s shortcomings have nonetheless emerged. Unfortunately, many of the concerns raised, while mentioned in Senator Kerry’s draft resolution of ratification, are not addressed in a manner that is likely to allay critics’ apprehensions.

Proponents of the treaty are pushing hard for a vote this week, motivated at least in part by the fear that the composition of the Senate will be significantly altered by the November elections — and in a way that could lead to further questioning of the treaty’s provisions and, ultimately, to more demands that shortcomings be fixed before ratification. As just one example, more in-depth examination of the verification provisions could expose the gaps created by concessions on exchanges of telemetry data (which among other things indicate how many reentry vehicles a missile can carry) and on site monitoring of Russia’s missile-assembly facility. To date, treaty supporters have relied on the argument that U.S. security is strengthened simply by having “U.S. boots on the ground” conducting inspections at Russian operational facilities. However, as we know from our experience with North Korea, the fact that inspectors are allowed into a country does not mean we can detect or deter cheating.

While silent on telemetry and other key verification weaknesses, Senator Kerry’s draft resolution does contain references to concerns raised about, for example, limitations on missile defenses and on conventional prompt global strike, a potential loophole for rail-mobile ICBMs, the surprisingly low limit on strategic delivery vehicles, the imbalance in Russian and U.S. stockpiles of so-called tactical nuclear weapons, the role of the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC), and the need for ongoing nuclear modernization. However, in almost every case, these references are in the form of “declarations,” which are “statements of purpose, policy, or position related to matters raised by the treaty in question but not altering or limiting any of its provisions.” Thus, these might not be included by President Obama in the formal provisions of the ratification instruments (and, hence, would not be shared with the Russian government).

The more effective path to addressing the now-acknowledged flaws of the treaty would be to include these references not as declarations, but as understandings and conditions, which would make clear both to the administration and to the Russians the baseline position of the Senate in its advice and consent. In this manner, the Senate could contribute greatly to U.S. security by stating that the United States will not accept further limitations on missile defenses or on prompt global strike, as well as by addressing directly the U.S. insistence that rail-mobile ICBMs be counted and that other potential ambiguities be resolved — before ratification and not in the BCC, which requires Russia’s agreement.

Treaty proponents, in arguing for prompt ratification of New START, have frequently pointed to bipartisan support for past arms-control agreements. As Stephen Rademaker, an assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, has pointed out, the surest way to achieve prompt ratification is to address the doubts and reservations of treaty critics in meaningful ways, rather than pushing ahead with a vote on a partisan basis as the Obama administration did with the health-care legislation. To his great credit, Sen. Richard Lugar, whose support for the treaty as it currently stands we do not share, appears to be trying to do just that. To succeed, however, such an effort will need to do more than record the criticisms and reiterate the views of proponents that the treaty does not require any fixes.

But even if a resolution is drafted that meets these desiderata, the requirements for a deliberate and responsible review by the Senate as a whole will still not be in place. First, as of this writing the administration has still not made available those parts of the negotiating record that touch on the points raised by critics. It is hard to know how senators will be able to balance the claims of the proponents against the points raised by critics in the absence of information about what the two sides brought to the table and what they meant when they agreed to the text. Second, the administration has still not addressed the detailed questions raised by Sen. Jon Kyl about its long-term commitment to modernizing the nation’s nuclear infrastructure and its nuclear-force structure.

In pushing for a vote on the treaty now, the administration and its allies outside government have used two principal arguments. First, they note that, with the expiration last December of the old START agreement (signed by presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991), the two sides are no longer governed by the earlier agreed verification procedures and thus are in the dark about the status of each other’s strategic nuclear forces. This circumstance, of course, could have been avoided had the administration sought an extension of the original START agreement and not subjected itself to an arbitrary deadline for negotiating New START. The argument is further undermined by the fact that the verification measures under the new agreement are considerably weaker than those in the expired agreement. In fact, New START may well be unverifiable. Administration statements that any “cheating” by the Russians would be unlikely to upset the nuclear balance between the two nations calls the rationale even further into question.

The second argument is that delay is undermining the goal of “resetting” the relationship with Russia, potentially making it less likely that Moscow will cooperate in stopping Iran’s nuclear program. It is hard to imagine that a healthy relationship with Russia could be undermined by the Senate’s duly deliberating about the treaty on more or less the same timeline that has governed every other arms-control agreement. Furthermore, in the wake of Russian statements opposing further U.S. and EU sanctions against Iran, and its fueling of Iran’s nuclear reactor in Bushehr, it is a stretch to see the reset as contributing much on the Iranian front.

Twenty years ago, the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy (which included Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger) made the following observations about arms control with Russia: “When arms-control agreements are valued mainly for the international good will they are expected to generate, and only secondarily for their effects on arms, then our political leaders will always be under pressure to reach agreements by making concessions on arms. . . . A good arms agreement will be consistent with our long-term military strategy. This means we want agreements that (a) do not assume nuclear vulnerability is a desirable condition for the American people, (b) do not assume that accuracy is an undesirable attribute for American weapons, and (c) do not assume that defense against nuclear attacks is more threatening than offense. Agreements should be negotiated with awareness that they could restrict our forces and technologies for decades.” We believe that is still a good standard. The agreement currently before the Senate cannot yet be said to meet it.

– Robert Joseph is a senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy; he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security, 2005–2007. Eric Edelman is a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments; he was under secretary of defense for policy, 2005–2009.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.


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