Politics & Policy

New START Can Wait

The lame-duck Congress shouldn’t touch this dangerously ambiguous treaty.

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.

Other observers have raised additional concerns regarding the treaty, including several serious and substantive amendments that the Senate should consider and debate before bringing New START up for a vote. Rep. Buck McKeon, who will soon become chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, recently wrote a letter that was signed by 14 of his committee colleagues to Senate leadership. They urged the Senate to delay a vote on New START’s ratification until some important outstanding national-security issues are resolved, including the need to upgrade our homeland ballistic-missile defense capabilities and increase funding for missile defenses in Europe in light of emerging multilateral missile threats. They also believe it is unwise to vote on New START before Congress gains a better understanding of how the impasse on missile defense will affect America’s long-term security.

While the House of Representatives has no constitutional role in the ratification of treaties, these members point out that the House has the responsibility of overseeing the funding, implementation, investment, and national-security-policy decisions that accompany such treaties.

These members of the House Armed Services Committee identify as their principal concern that “the Administration might cede to Russian demands and allow Moscow to shape U.S. missile defense plans in exchange for its adherence to New START.” They further point out that this concern is exacerbated by the unwillingness of the administration to provide Congress with the treaty’s negotiating record in order to allow the Senate to determine what executive branch assurances may have been made to Russia concerning missile defense.

The U.S. foreign-policy establishment, which supports this treaty, represents a Cold War–generation view that overvalues the Russians and undervalues the security threats to the United States from emerging nuclear states. They uniformly argue that New START should be ratified since it is merely a “modest” extension of their earlier efforts.

Modest treaties can wait until they have been thoroughly vetted. Modest treaties do not need to be jammed through the Senate on Christmas Eve like last year’s disastrous health-care bill — especially when twelve of the senators in the lame-duck Congress were recently defeated or are retiring and no longer have the mandate of the American people. Modest treaties can wait until March. In fact, it appears that no major treaty has ever been ratified by the Senate during a lame-duck session of Congress.

Today I released a letter to U.S. senators at a press conference of the New Deterrent Working Group, urging them to oppose the New START treaty until the House has been able to hold the deliberations that incoming chairman McKeon has called for, until New START codifies America’s right to develop its missile-defense systems without limitation within the treaty text itself, and until the Senate has been able to consider and vote on all other serious and substantive amendments that are offered. My letter also outlines the reasons why the Senate should be granted full access to the treaty’s negotiating history.

In the meantime, I urge Senators to first secure necessary national-security objectives — such as modernization of our nuclear arsenal and recognition of the uninhibited right of the United States to pursue a robust, multi-layered missile defense — before they concern themselves with securing modest ones. Doing so will send a much-needed message of strength and resolve to both friends and adversaries.

Newt Gingrich is general chairman of American Solutions for Winning the Future. He was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999.


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