Advancing a Free Society

New START

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In the waning days of the 111th Congress, the Senate has before it for consideration a U.S.-Russian treaty limited strategic nuclear weapons. Termed New START, the treaty would limit deployed strategic weapons to 1,550. The President today termed it “absolutely essential to our national security.”

He hurts his own case by making such outsized claims of damage if the treaty is not ratified in the coming 30 days. The difference between 12 months without inspections and 13 months without inspections is negligible. The difference between a stable U.S.-Russian equilibrium at current levels and the 30% cut established in the treaty is not particularly significant.  The argument that cuts in U.S.-Russian arsenals will reduce incentives for proliferation by other countries is unproven.  The treaty is marginally worthwhile for reinstituting verification of arsenals and buying Russian acquiescence for our efforts to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, but it is not essential to our national security.

Arms control advocates – including the Economist magazine – accuse Republicans of playing politics with national security. That the treaty is still awaiting ratification is a problem of the Administration’s own making. They could have simply extended the existing treaty in order to continue verification provisions. But the name gives away the game: President Obama wanted a new start with Russia, and a new start towards a world free of nuclear weapons, both attributed to him as departures from past practice.

The White House also could have made ratification a priority legislative issue much earlier in the year, since they submitted the treaty to the Senate in May. Ambassador Kurt Volker is right that the Administration’s zeal to have the treaty ratified before the new Congress is seated is unseemly.

Also unseemly is the White House’s panicked throwing of money at the nuclear weapons labs in an effort to buy Senator Kyl’s vote (thereby unlocking other Republicans deferential to Senator Kyl’s expertise). The White House is attempting to substitute spending for commitment.

What Senator Kyl seems to want is an acknowledgement from the President that as the nuclear arsenal is reduced to such low levels, the reliability of the weapons must be higher than present modeling (we no longer actually explode nuclear weapons to test them) provides. If the President were to commit to replacing warheads in order to maintain the stockpile, I believe Republicans would speedily ratify New START.

The White House has no intention of making such a statement, as they consider it inimical to the President’s commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons. They will not make the trade-off of newer weapons in order to have fewer weapons. And that is fundamentally what Senator Kyl is trying to gain by withholding his and other Republican votes.