A vote to end Senate debate on the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is slated to take place today. If this vote passes, a second vote to ratify the treaty could take place later in the day or possibly Wednesday. The Russian government has made it painfully clear to the United States that START is a take it or leave it proposition. Yesterday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the Russian news agency Interfax that the new START “cannot be opened up and become the subject of new negotiations.” If the Senate is going to accede to Lavrov’s instructions and ratify the treaty without amendments, it will have to happen before the end of the lame duck session. President Obama might just be able to cobble together the nine Republican votes needed to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary for ratification this year. But next year? Next year the president would have to find fourteen sympathetic Republican senators and that would be a much more difficult task. Accordingly, it comes as no surprise that Obama and his allies are doing everything they can to force a vote on the treaty before the 111th Congress disbands. The president places a great deal of importance on United States’ relations with Russia and seems convinced the Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev are reliable, trustworthy friends. If the Senate should fail to ratify the new START, Obama fears that his new best friends will sour on their relationship.
In a virtual replay of the abbreviated debate over the healthcare bill, Democrats are pushing hard to rush forward toward a vote with minimal debate. Senator Mitch McConnell complained about such strong arm tactics. “Our top concern should be the safety and security of our nation, not some politician’s desire to declare a political victory and host a press conference before the end of the year,” he said. Senator John Kerry scoffed at his colleague’s complaints, saying that the Senate had delayed a vote on the new START thirteen times over the last fourteen months. Kerry did not mention that it was only relatively recently that details of the treaty were finalized and made public. Those details worry some prominent foreign policy experts who fear that the net effect of the new START – no matter high-minded the treaty may be – will be to erode America’s national security and further destabilize the world.
A letter detailing some of those concerns was sent to Senator McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from the New Deterrent Working Group last week. The letter was signed by thirty-two former diplomats and retired military commanders, including John Bolton, William Clark, Ed Meese and Admiral James “Ace” Lyons, Jr. The working group exposed a number of troubling details contained within the draft treaty, which – in spite of Russia’s “all-or-nothing” posturing – Senators who swore an oath to serve the United States and its citizens should at least thoroughly consider before deciding whether or not to call Putin’s bluff and attach conditions to their approval of the treaty. Among the more worrisome aspects of new START are the following:
• Russia’s Tactical Nuclear Advantage Will Be Enhanced – The new START addresses only strategic nuclear weapons and does nothing to redress Russia’s ten to one advantage over the United States in tactical nuclear weapons. Estimates vary, but Russia probably has over 5,000 tactical nuclear warheads in its inventory, compared to less than 500 in the U.S. arsenal. The New Deterrent Working Group makes the point that as strategic nuclear weapons stores shrink, the importance of tactical nukes increases and the Russian advantage in that arena weighs more heavily.
• America’s Investment In Defense Technology Will Be Undercut – The Russian strategic nuclear arsenal was not built to last, while America’s was designed for the long haul. Bolton et al. argue that the Russians would be forced to cut back their strategic nuclear forces to new START levels whether or not the treaty is approved, simply because their aging fleet of missiles and bombs are metaphorically and physically rusting away. In contrast, the United States has invested considerable time and money to ensure that our strategic nuclear deterrent will continue to be effective for decades to come. If the new START is approved, America’s investment in cutting-edge deterrent technology will be wiped away at the stroke of a pen and Russia won’t be forced to pay any price at all to achieve nuclear parity with the world’s sole remaining superpower.
• Global Stability Will Suffer – For over sixty years, America’s overwhelming technological edge in developing and delivering nuclear weapons has served as a deterrent that prevented other nation-states from using the nuclear threat to destabilize the world order. Many of our allies recognize the importance of America’s nuclear primacy and the fact that we have used that superiority wisely. If we choose to draw down on our nuclear arsenal, the temptation among our enemies to up the atomic ante grows exponentially. Given a window of opportunity, the temptation for nuclear-capable nations like China and Pakistan to increase their own stockpiles to the point that they present a credible, and influential, threat increases manifold.
• Missile Defense May Be Undercut – Although the body of the treaty does not directly threaten America’s commitment to employ active defensive measures against ballistic nuclear threats, the preamble of the agreement suggests that America and Russia ought to cooperate when it comes to the United States’ strategic defense decisions. This would appear to be opening a very dangerous door. President Obama has committed to deploying an active missile defense system by 2020. The new START appears to provide Russia with an avenue that could undermine that resolve, depending on the character and commitment of the administration in power at the time. Bolton, Senator Jon Kyl and others have wondered why this issue should even be raised, much less spelled out in the text of such an important treaty.
There is nothing inherently wrong with reducing the world’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Yet, that noble goal should not be used as an excuse to justify every action. The United States Senate should carefully consider all of the implications of the new START before voting on the measure. And, should that review stretch into the realm of the 112th Congress, so be it. National security should count for far more than expedient political considerations. Harry Reid may not understand that, but at least thirty-four Republican Senators should get the point before it’s too late.