Don't Rush START

Don't Rush START

The dialogue between the administration and the Senate on America’s nuclear force is too important to be hurried along.

 Senator John Kerry is absolutely right that “even in these polarized times,” responsible statesmen “should know that the security of the United States is too important to treat it as fodder for political posturing.” Yet, while accusing his Republican opponents, and particularly Governor Mitt Romney, of playing politics with the New START treaty, Senator Kerry is doing exactly the same himself. There is no security justification for Senator Kerry’s attempt to rush ratification without serious consideration of the important issues raised by Senator Jon Kyl and his Republican colleagues. And when Mr. Kerry claims that every day without “treaties” ensuring verification is a day without a clear view of Russia’s nuclear arsenals, he grossly overstates the pitfalls of giving the Senate more time to evaluate how the agreement affects the United States.

The New START treaty is an important agreement with an important country on an important issue with important consequences. Having a sense of responsibility suggests avoiding exaggerated claims of both the advantages and the dangers the treaty may produce. The Cold War is no more; arms-control agreements with Russia are not about avoiding nuclear holocaust. There are other issues of cooperation between Moscow and Washington at stake, including Afghanistan, the Iranian nuclear problem, and trade and investment. At least some of these have greater significance to both nations than arms-control treaties reminiscent of a past nuclear rivalry. Maybe all of them do.

The New START treaty basically allows both sides to have the strategic forces they want anyway. The Russian nuclear arsenal is shrinking; Moscow would not have more nuclear weapons in the absence of the treaty. Still, the agreement does increase predictability, and its verification procedures, while inferior to some previous agreements, are better than nothing. But as the administration acknowledged itself, America already has the means to monitor Russia’s nuclear forces and to respond to any unexpected changes.

The best argument for ratifying the New START treaty is that once it has been signed by the two governments and presented to the international community with great fanfare, rejecting it would create a rupture in the U.S.-Russia relationship when we need Moscow’s cooperation on other important issues, starting with tightening sanctions against Iran.

Yet, contrary to the claims of its enthusiastic proponents, the treaty does not reduce the danger of nuclear war between America and Russia. That danger is already next to non-existent. Nor does the treaty seriously cut the number of Russian nuclear weapons, and its gains in verification are modest at best. Nonproliferation will not benefit much from the treaty, either; it will hardly have an impact on calculations by North Korea or Iran.

Since the benefits of New START to American security are not really significant, it is perfectly appropriate, as Senator Kyl argues, to reassure ourselves that it does not impose significant costs. One key area where this reassurance is clearly required is missile defense. The administration dismisses Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s unilateral signing statement threatening to withdraw from the treaty as routine diplomacy, and it argues that the language in the preamble to the treaty would in no way constrain American deployment of strategic-missile-defense systems.

But there is a caveat: as an administration spokesman acknowledged, “Russia was given assurances that nothing the administration is planning to do would threaten Moscow’s nuclear deterrent.” Because Russian leaders may view this as binding not only President Obama but his successors, Senator Kyl’s insistence on seeing the negotiating record is perfectly appropriate. Part of the administration’s hedging regarding missile defense may result from a degree of nostalgia among many senior decision makers for the now-defunct Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Ironically, it is precisely because the ABM Treaty is no longer in force that the administration was able to walk away from its predecessor’s plan for a “third” missile-defense site in Poland and the Czech Republic. The administration’s new-missile defense posture draws on sea-based systems—which were banned under that treaty. It is one thing for the United States to seek cooperation with Russia on missile defense; that serves the best interests of both countries. It is quite another to convey the impression that the United States is prepared to walk away from its missile-defense program; the administration, at its highest levels, needs to reject that possibility forcefully, publicly and unequivocally.

The treaty cannot be divorced from U.S. plans to modernize nuclear weapons. Without such modernization, the United States may fall dangerously behind, while enjoying an illusory sense of security because of the treaty. The administration promises to modernize existing nuclear weapons but does not want to create new nuclear warheads, which many nuclear specialists consider essential.

Finally, the administration needs to indicate what steps it proposes to take if New START does get ratified. If it is truly serious about further reducing the levels of nuclear weapons that both countries will maintain, it should signal its desire to focus on theater nuclear weapons in Europe. It is not at all clear why Russia retains a large arsenal of these weapons; surely it no longer views Europe as a threat to its security. And the weapons of several other nuclear-armed states are themselves theater weapons. If the administration truly wants to set an example that fosters nonproliferation, it should elevate theater nuclear weapons in Europe to the top of its post–New START agenda.

The dialogue between the administration and the Senate on America’s nuclear force and its defenses is too important to be rushed. Though former–Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger told us that on balance, the treaty should probably be ratified, he also said that he “would never negotiate a treaty like that.” Many other leading experts believe that addressing uncertainties over strategic defenses and nuclear modernization is essential for the treaty to be in the American interest. Senator Kerry’s undue hurry—which appears at least in part motivated by the politics he himself decries, including a hope to win, for himself and the administration, a public success—is unneeded and inappropriate. The world’s greatest deliberative body deserves a little more time.


Dimitri K. Simes is the president of The Nixon Center and publisher of The National Interest. Dov S. Zakheim was undersecretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration and is a member of The Nixon Center Board. The views expressed herein are entirely their own.