Senator Jon Kyl’s commentary in the Wall Street Journal last Thursday marked an important, clarifying moment in the debate about New START. Naturally, Kyl took a few cursory potshots at the treaty text itself, including at its verification regime. But, maybe he realized that his 2003 vote for the Moscow Treaty—a treaty that contains no verification provisions whatsoever—reduced his credibility on this subject because, by and large, he stayed clear of discussing the treaty on its merits. Instead, he candidly broadened the subject into a challenge against President Barack Obama’s overall security agenda.
Perhaps in some textbook world, the Senate would assess a treaty on its merits and provide its advice and consent to ratification if the treaty enhances U.S. national security (which New START, incidentally, does). However, in the “real world of real politicians” (to expropriate McGeorge Bundy’s phrase from another nuclear discussion) treaty ratification is rarely so simple. It is strange, therefore, that the administration has been rather silent about the President’s larger vision—because it is an attractive one.
This vision includes a nuclear weapons complex that is fit for purpose and to that end the President is, unlike his predecessor, providing the necessary funding. Indeed, Ambassador Linton Brooks, who served as administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration for four years under President George W. Bush, described the FY11 budget as one he “would have killed for.” Kyl should also remember that without New START’s ratification, the chances of Congress providing a sustained injection of funding are slim.
Good relations between Russia and the United States are also integral to the President’s foreign policy objectives. So far the reset has worked and has paid dividends. Russia supported the new UN Security Council resolution on Iran. Indeed, the Russian position was not even the limiting factor in determining the severity of the sanctions. Under the cover of that resolution, Russia then cancelled the sale of the S-300 air-defense system to Iran (even though the resolution does not actually prohibit the transfer). Good relations with Russia are in the American national interest. Rejection of New START would deal them a devastating blow.
The President’s vision also includes a world without nuclear weapons. Kyl presents his usual caricature of a naïve president who subscribes to the view that the elimination of nuclear weapons would, by itself, make the world a safer place. But, this is not Obama’s position. He and his administration are realists and understand that the world must be made a significantly safer place before nuclear weapons are eliminated. The President is under no illusions about how difficult the task ahead is. But trying to create the conditions that would allow nuclear weapons to be safely eliminated is not “dangerous,” as Kyl impugns. On the contrary, because a prerequisite to abolition would be much stronger bulwarks against states that violate international laws and norms—including nonproliferation ones—creating the conditions for abolition would significantly enhance U.S. security.
Perhaps it is because Senator Kyl misunderstands the President’s vision that he expresses concern about the possibility that there might be next steps in U.S.-Russian arms control. It is, of course, not true that any treaty is a good treaty. Future treaties should be judged on their merits—and, in each case, the Senate will have an opportunity to do so. But, even besides advancing the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, U.S.-Russian arms control can, in various ways, make important contributions to U.S. security.
First, Kyl and many of his Republican colleagues are worried about Russia’s huge stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons. They see these weapons as a threat to U.S. allies in Europe. Obama agrees with them. He has made it clear that any future arms control treaty with Russia must include tactical nuclear weapons. By Kyl’s own logic, pursuit of such a treaty is a laudable goal. However, there is no chance of negotiating one, if the United States does not ratify New START.
Second, unlike the United States, Russia loads its silo-based ICBMs with multiple warheads. With so many nuclear eggs in each ballistic basket, Russia could have a strong incentive, in a deep crisis, to launch these weapons before the United States could destroy them. Using arms control to shift Russia to a more stable posture is very much in the U.S. national interest.
Third, because the U.S. political system is so much more open and transparent than the Russian one, Russia will always learn from public sources much more about America’s strategic force programs than the United States will learn about Russia’s. The verification arrangements that come with arms control regimes are therefore lopsidedly advantageous for the United States, and the U.S. should seek to preserve and strengthen them.
These considerable advantages will, however, probably not be enough to convince skeptics of the enduring value of arms control. At the root of their concern is probably the fear that deep reductions—much beyond New START—would undermine deterrence. In Washington this concern will be (and has already been) expressed vicariously: U.S. allies, we will be told, are very worried about the effect of deep reductions on extended deterrence.
There is certainly some truth in this statement. Some key decision makers in some key allied states are worried. What is rarely asked in Washington is whether they should be. In May, the United States revealed it had 5,113 nuclear warheads in its stockpile. Would deterrence really be undermined if the United States has 4,000 or 1,000 or even a ‘mere’ 500? If the administration is serious about arms control beyond New START that is the question it must ask and answer. That is a debate for the near future, however; ratifying New START, with its modest, verifiable reductions that do not raise hard questions about the adequacy of the U.S. deterrent, is the first order of business.