START Soon, But Not Yet

Having the lame-duck Senate ratify the New START arms-control agreement would be an insult to the Russians.

The objections to New START seem to have been addressed. Nuclear modernization will proceed. NATO’s decisions regarding Ballistic Missile Defense have ensured that plans for these defenses will move ahead as well. Indeed, Russia may well play some role in the establishment of those defenses. Most national security experts, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen all support ratification of New START. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argues that delay creates questions about verification.

Why not, therefore, as the administration insists, ratify the treaty during the lame-duck Congressional session? Precisely because it is a lame-duck session. Rushing the treaty through now, as opposed to ratifying it in January, will permanently taint the agreement. It will be viewed in roughly the same way as the Democrats’ Health Care legislation: more of a political power play than a bipartisan—or as Secretary Clinton rightly prefers to call it—nonpartisan American decision.

To have soon-to-be retiring Senators ratify START is actually to insult Russia; it would be a signal that its interests can only be recognized by sleight-of-hand. Some have argued that in fact there is no need for a treaty at all; but this argument overlooks the reality that Russia seeks the treaty as a sign of its continuing relevance as a major power on the world stage. In that case, it deserves the respect that would go with a proper Senate ratification vote after all newly-elected Senators have taken their seats in that stately chamber.

There are those who argue that New START must immediately be ratified because of its verification provisions. But START I lapsed nearly a year ago; America appears to have survived intact. If we have waited nearly a year for a treaty, why cannot we wait another sixty days or so?

Moreover, the entire notion of verification with respect to Russia places the Washington-Moscow relationship back in the midst of the Cold War. This is hardly an example of the “reset” that the administration rightly has pursued. Moreover, it cuts against the grain of NATO’s proposals for cooperation with Russia on missile defense. After all, if we must hasten to ratify the treaty because we cannot trust the Russians for another two months, how could we possible trust them, in any way, in matters of missile defense, which are directed against the most immediate threats that confront the nation today?

President Obama naturally wants the treaty to be ratified now. It is one of the few concrete symbols of his administration’s successful diplomacy, and would be a quick restorative after his party’s shellacking earlier this month. But he should not undercut his own diplomatic success with an urgency that squares neither with reality, nor with his or America's rightful objective to base the relationship with Russia on a solid, and enduring, footing.