To oversell or underplay – that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer slings and arrows by acknowledging modest gains, or to claim immodest accomplishments in search of 67 votes in the Senate.
Since treaty foes will never be shy about predicting dreadful consequences, the case can be made to fight threat inflation by projecting outsized gains. The Nixon administration barreled down this slippery slope after signing the SALT I accords. Immediately after returning from the hoopla of the Moscow summit, President Nixon addressed a joint session of Congress where he encouraged prompt action on the accords to “forestall a major spiraling of the arms race.” National security adviser Henry Kissinger characterized the accords as being “without precedent in the nuclear age; indeed in all relevant modern history.” During the hearings on SALT, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird who, like Nixon and Kissinger, surely knew better, testified that the Interim Agreement “stops the momentum of the Soviet Union in the strategic offensive weapon area.” Nixon’s International Economic Report sent to the Congress in 1973 characterized the administration’s dealings with the Kremlin as “a giant step toward a lasting peace.”
By claiming immodest gains and misrepresenting accomplishments, the Nixon administration handed cudgels to critics of arms control when a very different story unfolded in the next few years. The task of capping the arsenals that were free to grow under the Interim Agreement fell to the Ford and Carter administrations. It took five long years for SALT II to establish ceilings from which strategic arms reductions could subsequently occur. But Senate support waned during the drawn-out, dispiriting process of negotiating the treaty. The best that could be said of SALT II – aptly characterized by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General David Jones, as “a modest but useful step” – was insufficient balm at a time of deteriorating US national confidence and growing Soviet adventurism.
The George W. Bush administration certainly did not feel compelled to make immodest claims on behalf of the 2002 Moscow Treaty. Russia was no longer a strategic competitor and key members of Team Bush were no fans of treaties. SORT barely qualified as such; its constraints were as flimsy as tissue paper. The Moscow Treaty had no verification measures integral to its reductions, which would come into effect for one second of one minute of the very day that the Treaty’s obligations would lapse. Nonetheless, Senate Democrats, then thankful for small favors, voted en masse to consent to ratify the Treaty, as did Senate Republicans previously counted as irreconcilable treaty foes.
The final Senate tally on SORT was 95-0. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, like SORT, offers the benefits of flexibility. But unlike SORT, its reductions can be monitored by intrusive, cooperative measures as well as by National Technical Means. These verification provisions are essential for states that don’t entirely trust each other. They are also a necessary foundation for more encompassing and deeper reductions, for which stronger monitoring arrangements will be needed.
Despite claims to the contrary, New START does not inhibit the growth of US conventional power projection capabilities that, unlike nuclear weapons, are militarily useful on battlefields. Nor will New START impede ballistic missile defense programs that, with or without the Treaty’s entry into force, will continue to be constrained by limitations imposed by technology, cost, and cost-effectiveness. The more ballistic missile defense boosters seek to kill this treaty, the more their favored programs will be stymied by Democrats on Capitol Hill. Russian threats to walk away from New START would also backfire, as such action would accelerate the U.S. programs they dislike most.
New START does not lend itself to extravagant claims, but it is an essential step on a long journey to reduce wretched excess and nuclear dangers. New START reconfirms the stubborn, post-Cold War fact that nuclear weapons have declining utility for major powers. Constituencies in both countries chafe against this trend line, and they will do their best to block entry into force. But dispassionate observers will understand that overheated arguments against the Treaty are baseless. The Senate vote on New START will therefore be yet another indicator of how well – or how poorly – the most powerful nation in the world projects itself internationally.