The Corner

Who’s Being Irrational in the New START Debate?

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Robert Wright had a wonderfully condescending op-ed in the New York Times yesterday about how the debate over New START pits “Fear v. Reason,” as the headline put it. I think the best that can reasonably be said for New START by its advocates is that it’s not that consequential, so the minor symbolic benefit of making the Russians feel like they’re still a superpower is worth it. Wright instead posits all sorts of wondrous effects. Let’s take them in turn:

“It would increase our confidence that Russian nukes aren’t going stray and winding up in terrorists’ hands (by re-establishing inspections that lapsed with the expiration of the first Start treaty).”

Treaty proponents have been hanging much on this bogus argument. The inspections under New START are meant to verify compliance with the treaty, not guard against terrorists stealing Russians nukes. If the Russian government doesn’t know about its nukes going astray—something it obviously has a major interest in preventing—there’s no reason to think we’re going to find out about it under this treaty. Does Wright think we’re going to show up at a declared site for a scheduled inspection and discover that a strategic warhead that had been on top of a strategic missile has suddenly gone missing? This is silliness. Quite simply, New START verification procedures are not designed to and cannot provide the confidence Wright attributes to them.  The inspection regime is weaker than under the old START treaty and inadequate even to the task of providing us confidence in the number and location of Russian strategic nuclear weapons, let alone any information on Russia’s more numerous arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons. New START entirely ignores those tactical weapons, which are the greater concern when it comes to “loose nukes.”  

“It would strengthen a partnership with Russia that could help keep Iran nuke-free and help contain the North Korean threat.”

Russia has not become substantially more helpful in our non-proliferation efforts (it helped water down the latest U.N. sanctions on Iran before voting for them) . The bottom line is that Russia will cooperate with us exactly to the extent it suits its interests, no more, no less. New START is not determinative here. Indeed, Wright is considerably more dew-eyed about the treaty and its effect on the Russians than the Russians are. Senior Russian leaders, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the chairman of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, Konstantin Kosachev, have said explicitly that ratification of New START will not determine the fate of the “reset.”

Unfortunately, the record shows that since the New START framework was first announced in 2009, Russian foreign policy has become more belligerent toward us and our allies. The administration has not wanted to highlight this behavior, but that doesn’t mean independent analysts have to play along.

As for containing North Korea, is the treaty going to have magical effect on the posture of the Chinese that Wright just doesn’t feel compelled to spell out?

“It would show non-nuclear nations that the great powers are making a good faith effort to reduce their stockpiles, thus rendering these nations more amenable to a much-needed tightening of the world’s nuclear non-proliferation regime.”

The range for deployed warheads in the Treaty of Moscow is 2,200 to 1,700. Going from there to 1,550 is going to change the minds of non-nuclear nations about non-proliferation? (Never mind that the Russians will be able to game the counting rules of New START and could go much higher than the treaty’s nominal limit on warheads.) This is otherworldly. Anyone worried about North Korean nukes or the Iranian program has already had ample opportunity to help us deal with those threats. In fact, we know that many non-nuclear states in the Arab states already want us to bomb the Iranians to take out their program, as robust an act of non-proliferation you can imagine.

Wright goes as far as to say New START makes it less likely “that North Korea, desperate for cash, would sell nukes to terrorists who could sneak them into the United States and detonate them.” This might be plausible—if New START were a treaty with North Korea. When it comes to the states we worry about, such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria, they have never made decisions about their nuclear-weapons programs on the basis of U.S.-Russian strategic arms-control agreements; it is hard to imagine anything less relevant to their decision making. (Our non-nuclear friends, on the other hand, worry that the administration’s arms-control agenda, with New START as the first step, could reduce the credibility of our nuclear umbrella and force them to begin to re-think their own nuclear options.)

By invoking loose nukes detonating in U.S. cities, Wright relies as much on “fear” to make his case as any critic of the treaty, and piles naïve fancy on top of it. He’s both fear-mongering and unreasonable.

UPDATE: I edited the last line because I realized the original one didn’t quite work. 

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