Why START Now?

Foreign policy has returned to the forefront of the news as President Barack Obama recently urged Congressional leaders to ratify the “New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty,” or New START, that he negotiated with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev this spring.  The treaty’s terms cannot be implemented until it is ratified, but Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl’s (R-AZ) opposition to the ratification of the treaty during the current lame duck session is precipitated by what he calls “unresolved issues,” a lack of funding and unclear plans for modernization of U.S. forces, and a lack of deliberation on the details of the proposal. The Senate should not ratify New START; instead, the United States should use the time left while the 2003 Moscow Treaty remains in force to fix the problems with New START or even start over to write a new treaty.

Background.  Article Two, Section Two, Clause Two of the United States Constitution specifies that the President of the United States shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, so long as two-thirds of the Senators present concur.  The ratification of treaties differs from standard Senate procedure in that it requires this supermajority of affirmative votes to pass.  President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid contend that they have the votes necessary for ratification of New START, but it now looks unlikely that the Senate will vote on the treaty during the current lame duck session.  But Senator Jon Kyl, the Senate’s most vocal critic of ratification during the lame duck session, told Senator Reid, “I do not think [the treaty can come to a vote now] due to the other work Congress must do.” 

Recently, all 10 of the newly-elected Senators sent a letter to Senator Reid urging him to delay a vote on ratification until the 112th Congress convenes in January 2011.  In their letter, Senators-elect Blunt, Boozman, Rubio, Johnson, Hoeven, Portman, Kirk, Ayotte, Paul and Moran wrote, “Out of respect to our states’ voters, we believe it would be improper for the Senate to consider the New START treaty or any other treaty in a lame duck session prior to January 3, 2011.  Indeed, no bilateral strategic arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union or Russia has ever been ratified during a lame duck session…We call on you to defer action on this arms control treaty until the Senate reconvenes in the 112th Congress and we are able to participate fully and in an informed manner on the New START.”

While these new statesmen’s position is commendable, they should have advocated a new treaty and a new strategy that modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, preserve American power, and address the critical issue of missile defense.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.  New START would cap the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550 for both the United States and Russia, limit each side to just 700 warhead launchers, place a cap on deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers at 800 apiece, and each party will again have the right to conduct inspections of ICBM bases, submarine bases, and air bases.  Russia’s immense 10,000-plus tactical Nuclear weapons are not covered by the treaty.  In describing the terms of the treaty, Presidents Obama and Medvedev write:

“Thus treaty shall remain in force for 10 years unless it is superseded by a subsequent agreement on the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms.  If either party raises the issue of extension of this treaty, the parties shall jointly consider the matter…Each party shall, in exercising its national sovereignty, have the right to withdraw from this treaty if it decides that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests.”

Since the expiration of the previous START treaty, nearly one year ago, neither side has been able to inspect the other country’s nuclear arsenal, which is partly the reason for urgency.  As the treaty states, “The purpose of such inspections shall be to confirm the accuracy of declared data on the numbers and types of deployed and non-deployed strategic offensive arms subject to this treaty; the number of warheads located on deployed ICBMs and deployed SLBMs; and the number of nuclear armaments located on deployed heavy bombers.” The purpose of the inspection is to verify that both signatories comply with the treaty’s terms.  Furthermore, inspection allows each nation to confirm the accuracy of the declared data on the numbers, types, and technical characteristics of the non-deployed strategic offensive arms in each nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Senators’ Concerns.  Senator Jon Kyl, the Republican minority whip, and his colleague John McCain are leading the charge against ratification.  Senator Kyl has argued that the Senate should oppose ratification of New START on the grounds that not specific enough in important areas and weakens American strategic security.  While Senator Kyl has taken issue with the lack of adequate deliberation time in the Senate, his main qualm with the treaty is its many “unresolved issues.”

Two of those unresolved issues include the modernization of U.S. nuclear forces and the assurance that the treaty does not inhibit U.S. missile defense.  On the first point, Kyl has urged President Obama since the onset of deliberation of New START to increase funding for modernization of the aging U.S. nuclear laboratories and the nuclear arms themselves.  In an effort to entice Senator Kyl and his Republican colleagues, President Obama has pledged to spend $4 million on modernizing a dilapidated Arizona nuclear research facility, but Senator Kyl is still urging his Senate colleagues to oppose ratification of New START.  Kyl told the Wall Street Journal that he is not convinced that Senator Obama is serious about providing adequate funding for modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.  President Obama has dubbed the ratification of New START one of the most important foreign policy objectives of his presidency, and it is therefore unlikely that he can entirely ignore objections.

Senate Republicans have also expressed their displeasure with the treaty’s failure to address ballistic missile defense.  Senator Kyl has pressed President Obama in recent days on this point but has yet to receive a response.  Kyl has previously stated that until the president provides assurance that New START does not inhibit American missile defense, he will block its passage.

In 2009, President Obama proposed cutting $1.2 billion in missile defense and eliminated key missile defense projects such as the Kinetic Energy Interceptor and the Airborne Laser.  In the 2010 defense budget, President Obama made further cuts to American missile defense.  At the time of this writing, America’s missile defense budget is $600 million lower than it was at the onset of Obama’s presidency. The concerns expressed by Senators Jon Kyl, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Jim DeMint over New START’s failure to address missile defense are warranted.  Development of a robust and technologically advanced missile defense system should be a foremost priority of the United States Congress and the Department of Defense.

Scholars’ Concerns.  National security scholars have raised several other problems with New START.  First and foremost, Republican Senators have said that they want to delay ratification of the treaty until the 112th Congress convenes on January 3, 2010.  But many conservative experts believe New START should be scrapped and a new treaty negotiated altogether.  Second, the Senators have not focused much on the issues of sharing telemetric information with Russia, the forced reduction of U.S. offensive and defensive weapons and weapon launchers, or New STARTs embrace of a Cold War mindset.  John Bolton, describing his vexation with the New START Treaty, writes, “Less-well-understood-but profoundly misguided—is the treaty’s return to outmoded Cold War limits on weapons launchers, which will require the United States, but not Russia, to dismantle existing delivery systems.  This could cripple America’s long-range conventional warhead delivery capabilities, while also severely constraining our nuclear flexibility.”  This problem alone should prompt opposition to ratification of New START.

While the sharing of telemetric information may foster cordial relations between the signatories, it is detrimental to American strategic security.  Dr. James Carafano, a national security fellow at the Heritage Foundation, notes that the treaty requires the two signatories to share missile defense and test flight data.  Russia could use this information to develop strategies for countering U.S. missile defense or share this information with Iran, North Korea, or other rogues.  The sharing of this kind of information poses a grave threat to American strategic security and the stability of the free world.

Dr. Carafano, summarizing conservative opposition to New START, writes, “Conservatives oppose the treaty not because they are ‘partisan’ (as the White House routinely claims) but because they see the treaty as useless in limiting proliferation, detrimental to missile defense, and counter to the purpose of defense treaties—defending and protecting American from her enemies.” Rather than delaying the vote to ratify New START, conservatives should urge the negotiation of a more “American friendly” treaty with the Russian government.

A Better Alternative: Strengthening the Moscow Treaty.  Instead of ratifying the New START Treaty, a better idea would be to strengthen and renew the Moscow Treaty of 2002 before it expires on December 31, 2012.  The Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Strategic Offensive Reduction, or the Moscow Treaty, was created by George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin and limits each signatory to 1,700-2,200 operationally deployed warheads.  John Bolton, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, examined the fundamental differences between the Moscow and New START treaties.  Mr. Bolton, in describing the fundamental differences between the treaties, wrote:

“In pursuing New START, the Obama administration has essentially jettisoned the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, which only dealt with the limitation of nuclear warheads that were operationally deployed.  That freed large numbers of U.S. launchers (land-based ballistic missiles, along with heavy bombers such as the B-2) to carry conventional payloads world-wide—a concept known as conventional prompt global strike.”

Mr. Bolton argues that the United States should abandon the New START treaty and instead strengthen the provisions of the 2002 Moscow Treaty.  Limiting operationally deployed warheads, not delivery mechanisms—which the United States needs to be able to project conventional power—should be the focal point of U.S. arms control agreements. 

The fundamental differences between the Moscow Treaty and New START are five-fold.  First, the 2002 Moscow Treaty properly moved the U.S.-Russian relationship away from one premised on mutual threats of nuclear annihilation in which the balance of nuclear power was at the center of the relationship.  Conversely, New START is designed to preserve the “second strike,” retaliation-based deterrence policies of the Cold War, with Russia assuming the role of the former Soviet Union.  If the New START Treaty were ratified, the United States would wrongly return to an outdated, Cold War-era strategic posture.

Second, New START is designed to codify strategic nuclear parity between the United States and Russia.  The Moscow Treaty did not.  Further, New START will jettison U.S. strategic flexibility and leave virtually no margin for error.

Third, the Moscow Treaty did not place limitations on U.S. strategic defensive and offensive development and deployment options.  Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation notes that this feature of the Moscow Treaty permitted greater flexibility for the United States in its broader strategic posture.  But the New START Treaty limits the number of offensive and defensive strategic weapons in the American nuclear arsenal.

Fourth, Baker Spring notes that the implications for U.S. security stemming from ambiguity in New START regarding U.S. missile defense options are far graver than those stemming from the term “strategic nuclear warheads” used in the Moscow Treaty.  The New START Treaty fails to address the issue of missile defense, American first strike-capabilities, and the importance of modernizing the U.S. missile defense arsenal.  The Russians have made it clear that they will exploit the ambiguity of the treaty’s language on missile defense.

Finally, the New START Treaty and its associated strategy fail to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and nuclear laboratories.  Baker Spring notes that in 2002-2003, the Bush administration outlined a specific plan for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the aging nuclear research laboratories as a complement to the Moscow Treaty.  Upon gaining control of both houses of Congress in 2006, Democrats blocked President Bush’s modernization plan.  Modernization of the American nuclear arsenal should be a foremost priority of any arms control agreement and strategy.

Conclusion.  Conservatives are not opposed to an arms control treaty with the Russian government.  Rather, they oppose any treaty that compromises American nuclear secrets, weakens American strategic security, or fails to adequately address missile defense.  The White House urgently needs to negotiate a treaty that protects American vital interests; New START does not.

This Foreign Policy section of the Weekly Political Forecast is authored by PAI’s Deputy Policy Director.

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