It is very disappointing that the NEW START treaty signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last April has fallen victim to partisan bickering and this time it appears the Republicans, for some reason not obvious to us, have chosen to try and gain some political advantage. There are many battles worth waging between Republicans and Democrats. This doesn’t seem to be one of them. Are we certain that this treaty significantly improves our national security? In arms control treaties nothing is absolutely certain, but we find rather convincing the support for the treaty voiced by the likes of virtually all of the Pentagon high command including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and each of the service chiefs, as well as Republican Senator Richard Lugar (the party’s leading light on foreign affairs) and a number of Republican foreign policy experts, including Former Secretaries of State James Baker, George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, national security advisor to President George H. W. Bush, General Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell. Former Democratic hawk, James Schlesinger also strongly supports the treaty. So what is going on here?
Opponents are hyperventilating over ratification of such an important accord during a lame duck session of Congress. We’re unimpressed. This is not some reincarnation of hastily cobbled legislation that no one has had time to consider. And we fail to be persuaded that the new Congress that waits in the wings is in a better position to take up the measure than those who are currently ending their terms. We might feel different if Senator Lugar, the Republican foreign-policy guru was in high dudgeon over the treaty, but as noted above, he fully supports it. Senate Minority Leader, Jon Kyl (R-AZ.), who previously seemed to support its ratification, has emerged as the strong leader of the opposition, urging delay. He has made numerous demands regarding NEW START, including assurances that the United States will upgrade its remaining arsenal and the administration has gone the extra mile to meet his demands.
We, like many others, have followed the arguments for and against ratification and, despite our vexation over President Obama’s general foreign affairs performance, we feel the case for ratification is much more persuasive than the case in opposition. Let us be specific. Opponents argue that the treaty does not limit tactical nuclear weapons. That is true, and it is also true that Russia has considerably more tactical nuclear weapons than we do. But NEW START, like START 1, is, by definition, a strategic arms limitation treaty (with verification) and such incremental corralling of these awesome strategic urban-center vaporizers has served the Russians and us well. We benefit from knowing the location of Russian missiles and anything else inspectors can determine. Senator Kyl has raised strong concerns that with the NEW START limitations, our defenses could be eroded without modernization of our nuclear stockpile, but the Administration’s willingness to accede to his concerns, and make substantial commitments of funds ($180 billion) over the next decade to modernize our aging nuclear arsenal seems to render his opposition moot.
Various conservative commentators, including former UN Ambassador John Bolton and various right-leaning think tanks have raised numerous questions, many of which are quite legitimate and thoughtful. Reaching an accord with a long-time, well-armed adversary on something as dicey as defense is bound to require maneuvering through a thicket of “what ifs,” and identifying phraseology that creates potential loopholes, interpreting semantical ambiguities and second-guessing what the motive for this or that language might be can be an absolutely endless exercise.
There are, however, remedies for these concerns. Treaties have been ratified predicated on specific conditions that address specific concerns. In fact, the nation’s very first major treaty, the Jay Treaty, which formally ended hostilities between the United States and Great Britain, was extremely controversial (John Jay was burned in effigy so often he quipped that he could see his way home at night by the light of the flames) and was only ratified after the Senate imposed specific conditions pertaining to trade. And, of course, there is really nothing to stop a nation from bowing out of an agreement if it feels its security or national interests have been, or are being, imperiled by a treaty. President Carter unilaterally revoked the 1955 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Republic of China (Taiwan) in order to expand relations with the Peoples Republic of China. President Bush (43) withdrew from the 1972 ABM treaty with Russia and the Land Mine Pact arguing that he would not be constrained by a treaty if he felt the nation’s defense was jeopardized. Under the provisions of the 1972 ABM treaty, the United States was constrained from deploying a space-based weapons system designed to shoot down in-coming offensive weapons about to descend on the United States and the president and the Department of Defense considered the use of land mines essential to protecting U.S. soldiers in hostile situations.
Treaties of this nature are, by definition, always going to entail considerable controversy, especially where the reduction, limitation or elimination of some of the signatory’s most awesome weapons are involved. This is especially true when the signatories have a long history of distrust, let alone enmity. But times and circumstances do change. Neither Russia nor the United States, today, see one another as the greatest threat to the other’s existence. To the contrary, both countries, today, see a very common threat from a very deadly, mutating international pathology, radical jihadist Islam. There is, today, cooperation between the United States and Russia that few would have thought possible prior to President Reagan’s determined efforts to bring the cold war to a close.
We are fighting two wars close to Russia, one on Russia’s doorstep, and which has required close cooperation between the United States and Kazakhstan, once a Soviet state. We recognize that there are those in both countries whose very DNA still recoils at the thought of any treaty between America and Russia short of unconditional surrender, but many of the old tensions have long since given way to new realities. Our common interests today are simply stronger than our old rivalries. NEW START isn’t Obama’s version of a Brave New World. Essentiality, it brings up to date existing agreed upon protocols that have enabled both countries to reduce their nuclear stockpiles. American inspectors have, because of these accords, access to Russian nuclear facilities. This verification regime ended with the expiration of START 1 and won’t be reinstated until and unless NEW START is ratified. We see little purpose in disrupting these hard-won protocols at a time when the US is waging a vital war with serious consequences at Russia’s doorstep.
The so-called NEW START treaty has not emerged out of thin air. It is part of an evolutionary diplomatic process with a long pedigree. Let’s take a moment to review how we got here. Many of the commentators and more than a few of our current lawmakers who are fulminating over NEW START were children when President Ronald Reagan unveiled the first START proposal in Geneva nearly thirty years ago. It was Reagan who first proposed to the Soviet Union a dramatic, mutual reduction in our respective nuclear arsenals. Reagan proposed a reduction in warheads on any missiles to a mere 5,000 and a limitation on the number of ICBM’s to 2,500. It took a decade before Reagan’s vision was fulfilled when President Bush (41) finally inked, along with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev the first START treaty at the Kremlin. The Reagan-Bush initiative resulted in what was the largest and certainly, the most complex arms treaty in history. Approximately eighty percent of all strategic nuclear weapons then in existence were taken out of service. Of course, both countries still had (and still have) the capacity to obliterate the other many times over.
That landmark treaty which has well served the mutual interests of both countries expired exactly one year ago. It seems to us that the renewal and updating of that treaty which occurred when President Obama and Russian President Medvedev signed NEW START last April in Prague is entirely consistent with the work begun by President Reagan and should be ratified without further delay. The risk of an historic and vital mechanism for cooperation between two old adversaries falling victim to the political toxicity of our times is too great for gamesmanship between the White House and the Senate. A nuclear arms reduction regime with verification as envisioned by President Reagan and as enshrined in START I and in NEW START has been an achievement of no small magnitude. The START I agreement and NEW START are not perfect, but they are very good. This, it seems to us, is a textbook example of an opportunity to not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. NEW START should be ratified now!