The New Start Treaty Debate: What’s at Stake

Commentary | November 18, 2010

For a contest that was all about domestic politics, the 2010 midterm elections’ most immediate and high-profile victim could well be Obama’s key foreign policy accomplishment to date: the New START treaty. And if the New START treaty fails to be ratified in the Senate lame-duck session, the U.S.-Russia relationship itself could be seriously undermined.

Going into the midterms, the Obama administration was confident that it could count on at least a dozen Republican votes in favor of New START.  The key to their ratification strategy was Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, but he issued a surprise announcement on  November 16th that he did not think the treaty should be voted on this year.  Two days later, ten of the incoming Senate Republicans released a letter saying that they wanted a chance to vote on the treaty.  This was a double whammy that could crush the Obama administration’s efforts for a quick, successful vote.

A yes vote from Kyl, it was assumed, would bring along enough Republicans to assure the treaty’s ratification. His new call to delay ratification could well cause other Republicans who may have voted yes to backtrack. Bob Corker, one of the Republicans who initially voted the treaty out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had already said he may not support ratification. If a vote is put off until the new Congress convenes in January, the odds look even worse. For New START, it may well be a case of now or never—and never has some serious negative implications for all aspects of the U.S.-Russia relationship.

The administration is refusing to go down without a fight. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and President Obama himself, all veterans of the Senate, are continuing to lobby hard for ratification. In the Senate, they are working closely with John Kerry and Dick Lugar, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, respectively. And Lugar rebuked his colleagues in the Senate this week, arguing, in essence, that national security is falling victim to political considerations. The picture is further complicated by the fact that the administration may need to work both sides of the aisle because as at least one Democratic Senator, Ben Nelson of Nebraska,  has also called for delaying a ratification vote until the 112th Congress.

Among the key issues wrapped up in the debate over the treaty are U.S. ballistic missile defense plans, the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and the broader U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship.  Some opponents of the treaty have long argued that it constrains U.S. options to deploy a ballistic missile shield. As evidence, they point to its preamble that notes the relationship between offensive and defensive strategic arms.  The Russian government appeared to give them more ammunition when it issued a unilateral statement that that any U.S. missile defense build-up that would “give rise to a threat to the strategic nuclear force potential of the Russian Federation” would justify Russia’s withdrawal from the treaty. To the skeptics, this proved their point.

But neither of these documents is legally binding and thus they do not constrain U.S. options on missile defense.  The critics also largely ignore the fact that the United States also unilaterally reserves the right to withdraw from the treaty if it feels its national interest is threatened. It’s worth recalling that it was the United States, not Russia, that  exercised such an option when it unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. U.S. missile defense plans have long been a highly contentious issue in the U.S.-Russian relationship and BMD was one of the main reasons that the negotiations on the New START treaty took so long. And although the Obama administration refused to go along with any concessions that would tie their hands in terms of BMD, the Russian government portrayed the treaty as doing exactly that in order to show progress on one of their key areas of concern. Russian statements that the treaty should constrain U.S. missile defense plans have thus complicated the picture for the administration.

Additional objections to the treaty arise from the suspicions of its opponents that the administration is not truly committed to the modernization of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, which becomes all the more important as the number of weapons decreases. Yet the administration had already committed $80 billion over 10 years to ensure the safety and reliability of the nuclear weapons complex—and added another $4.1 billion recently to satisfy Kyl.  Linton Brooks, who was in charge of the National Nuclear Security Administration from 2003 until 2007, proclaimed: “I would’ve killed for this kind of budget.”

A broader objection to the treaty is based on distrust of the entire reset effort with Russia. Many American critics believe their country has given away too much in its efforts to build a stronger relationship with Russia across a range of issues and received nothing in return. The Obama administration’s decision to abandon the Bush administration’s plans for a BMD system based in Poland and the Czech Republic  was seen as particularly symbolic in this regard.

But there have been concessions—and some quite significant—from the Russian side. The reset has been underpinned by mutual concessions. Under Medvedev, Russia cancelled its contract to sell S-300 SAMs to Iran, supported new sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program, and opened a supply route through Russian territory for the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan. These decisions have opened Medvedev up to domestic criticism similar to what Obama has faced—giving away too much for too little in return. If the United States does not ratify New START, Medvedev is likely to be unwilling or unable to deliver on some of the most difficult policy issues—Iran, Afghanistan, arms control.

In any honest appraisal,  the ratification of New START would not only give the United States greater insight into the Russian nuclear arsenal and vice versa, but also  greater stability and transparency. There would be  boots-on-the-ground verification,  which the United States has been forced to live without for nearly a year now. Ratification also would help promote progress on a broad range of issues of strategic interest to the United States—on, as Hillary Clinton recently enumerated, Iran, Afghanistan, nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and counternarcotics. If the treaty is not ratified, cooperation with Russia could well grind to a halt. And both Obama and Medvedev would be seen as failing to deliver on the promise of the reset.  It would be a blow to more than the two leaders’ prestige; it would also undercut U.S.-Russian relations and the prospects for further nuclear reductions anywhere. The stakes are incredibly high.