Guarding Against Setbacks for a New START

in Program

By Matej Kenda – President Barack Obama and President Dmitri Medvedev face challenges in bringing the new START treaty into force.  They must guard against promising too much, while conveying the importance in achieving broader nonproliferation goals.  Issues such as missile defense and the status of Russian military forces will enter into the ratification debate.  Bureaucratic and political opponents could also try to derail its ratification. Both leaders must guard against exuberant optimism, and step up their efforts in the long slog toward ratification.

New START, as it is dubbed, will limit both Russia and the US to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads. The Obama Administration touts this as 74% lower than the limit of START I and 30% lower than the limit of the 2002 Moscow Treaty. In addition, New START will reduce the number of delivery systems such as ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee kicked off the US ratification process on May 18, with testimonies from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen. This is first in a series of Senate hearings leading up to the ratification vote at some point later this year.

The Senate rules require 67 votes for “advice and consent” for the ratification of any international treaty. This supermajority has been difficult for previous arms control treaties to garner, such as the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which some perceived as threatening the existential security of the United States. The Republicans are projected to pick up between 5 to 7 Senate seats in the 2010 midterm elections. If there is united opposition from the minority party, the prospects of passage for the New START treaty in the near future are dim.

The ambiguity regarding missile defense in the treaty also provides skeptics in the Senate a very useful cover to scuttle ratification. Many perceive President Obama’s decision to cancel deployment of missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic as “appeasement” to Russia.  Any further concessions in that regard – true or perceived – will be seen as a weakness, and thus, will be unacceptable.

Russia, however, faces a different challenge.

Boris Gryzlov, Speaker of the State Duma, says that the lower chamber will not ratify the new strategic arms reduction treaty unless it is linked with missile defense. However, this may be related more to political posturing by the legislative branch, rather than genuine opposition within the Duma.

In the end, Russia’s issues with ratification lie with its military leadership. Russia now is conventionally weaker than its large power “adversaries” such as NATO or China. Therefore, the Russian military relies on nuclear weapons to prevent and deter a potential aggressor on Russian soil. Any further cuts in nuclear capability would, in the Russian military’s view, threaten its ability to defend itself against a foreign incursion. This is unacceptable to many high-level officials in Russian defense circles.

Regardless of the political processes in each country, this agreement has already signaled the commitment of both countries to nuclear disarmament. This new agreement grants the US and Russia some moral authority to take a much stronger tone at the May 2010 NPT Review Conference, demanding international support for stronger and tougher measures against nuclear proliferation.

President Obama made nuclear disarmament one of his priorities.  To his credit, he has now made it the centerpiece of this administration’s foreign policy. While it impossible to measure the impact of New START on his efforts to contain Iran and North Korea, the treaty may serve as the “carrot” – a good-faith commitment to nuclear disarmament by the two largest nuclear powers – to spur action on containing potential Iranian nuclear breakout capability.

Through this lens, New START shouldn’t be viewed as a bilateral give-and-take between the US and Russia, nor as “pie in the sky” nuclear disarmament. Rather, the treaty is a pragmatic conversation-starter on global nuclear disarmament: both an act of good faith, and a cool-headed foreign/security policy calculation.

Matej Kenda is an intern with the Managing Across Boundaries project at the Stimson Center.


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