Washington and Moscow finally seem to be getting close to inking a successor to the START treaty, after failing to do so before it expired back in December. Talks have been underway for nearly a year, with multiple negotiating sessions and repeated conversations between President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Yet outside the realm of specialists, few seem to have noticed or even to care if the treaty succeeds or fails.
Medvedev and Putin talked about the agreement by telephone on Saturday, March 13, and, after the conversation, the Kremlin released an official statement saying that "now it is already possible to have a conversation about specific dates" when the treaty would be ready. On March 15, State Department Spokesman P. J. Crowley announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would discuss the post-START treaty with her Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the end of this week. The same day, Secretary Clinton told a Russian journalist that she was "optimistic that we'll be able to complete this agreement soon."
In the 1970s and 1980s, events like these would have been the hardest of hard news, leading evening news broadcasts and making the front pages of newspapers the next day. But at the State Department's March 15 press briefing, not a single reporter asked about the treaty. It is telling.
Of course, the critical difference between these two eras is that no one seriously fears that Moscow will launch a sudden nuclear attack. There is no clearer illustration of the fundamental difference between U.S.-Soviet relations and U.S.-Russian relations. For this reason, whether or not they succeed, the talks on a new arms-control agreement are more symbolic than substantive.
This is not to say that the success or failure of the process is not important, however. Symbolism matters in international relations, and a successful agreement could give new momentum to U.S.-Russian efforts to "reset" bilateral relations as well as strengthening Washington's hand in managing global nonproliferation issues by demonstrating concretely our own efforts to move toward a nuclear-free world (unlikely as it seems that we will ever get there). As many have noted, this latter symbolism would be particularly useful as we approach major international negotiations on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in May.
Conversely, a failure could be costly in both areas. In U.S.-Russian relations, arms control is often considered more easily achievable than some other objectives, such as a deal on Iran sanctions or (even harder) a new European security system. So if we can't do the "easy" things, what can we do? On nonproliferation, it will be difficult to persuade countries that don't have nuclear weapons to accept even tighter restrictions on their activities in the nuclear power field without showing that America is doing something too.
Of course, symbolism matters in domestic politics as well. In the United States, Senate ratification of a new arms-control agreement would be a major achievement for President Obama that some may well prefer to deny him, especially if there is a mistaken sense that doing so would have no real cost to our national security. Defeat of the treaty or, more likely, visible reluctance to submit it to the Senate, would have a different kind of symbolic impact by suggesting that the administration is too weak to accomplish its goals. We can argue in our domestic politics about whether that is good or bad, but it is not desirable for the president of the United States-from any party-to be seen this way internationally. Especially facing the challenges we face today.
In Russia, success for arms control would likewise be a boost for President Medvedev, who is pursuing the "reset" despite a degree of skepticism from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who in turn appears to believe that the United States let him down as president. Failure would buttress not only Mr. Putin's position, but also that of Russia's already large group of America-skeptics. This group would prefer closer relations with China, a much less demanding partner.
It is tempting to think that because America no longer fears a U.S.-Russian nuclear war, arms control talks don't matter. The Bush administration embraced this position and rejected the concept of binding treaties with complex verification measures as outdated and irrelevant. Viewed strictly within the confines of the U.S.-Russian strategic nuclear balance, the Bush team may even have been right. But a new post-START arms control agreement would be significant for many other reasons-and not having one would be too.
Paul J. Saunders is Executive Director of The Nixon Center. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.