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Why New START Was Ratified

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
December 22, 2010

Why New START Was Ratified - why-new-start-was-ratified

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The ratification of a treaty like New START shouldn't be a surprise, but it is. Recently the treaty seemed to be hanging by a thread. What revived it? Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and his allies miscalculated badly. They thought it would be enough to call for more debate while insisting that the treaty offended some core principle of national security, like the growing need for operational missile defense.

Instead they discovered how hard it is to vote down a treaty that the military establishment genuinely supports. In 1999 Kyl mustered an outright majority against the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). He plainly expected to hold most Republicans with him this time. But he ignored the big difference between the two agreements. CTBT did not unite the national security establishment. New START did.

When Adm. Mike Mullen, speaking for the Joint Chiefs, wrote senators over the weekend that the treaty was "vital" to U.S. security, he wasn't brushing aside dissident views in the Pentagon. If senators are to vote against a JCS chairman whom they respect, they need to know that at least some senior military officers disagree with him. Kyl was unable to make this case. He pushed his opposition too far, and his colleagues wouldn't back him.

If senators are to vote against a JCS chairman whom they respect, they need to know that at least some senior military officers disagree with him. Kyl was unable to make this case.

Arms control treaties are almost always oversold, and New START will probably continue in this tradition. When it was signed in April, the Obama administration hoped it might yield a series of follow-on measures, including deeper strategic missile cuts, talks to limit tactical nuclear weapons, maybe even a revival of the CTBT or an agreement to end production of fissile materials.

History argues against such hopes. The landmark arms control agreements between Moscow and Washington -- the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, SALT I in 1972, and START I in 1990 -- all failed to lead to a successful follow-on agreement. (The Moscow Treaty of 2002 fits the same pattern, but the Bush Administration wasn't really trying). In arms control, what you see is usually what you get.

This does not mean that the ratification of New START will have no benefits for Russian-American relations. It probably will. The "re-set" has been one of President Barack Obama's most successful foreign policy initiatives. He has reached accord with the Russians when many experts said the odds were against him. Now we hear that the effort is played out -- that Moscow won't support further pressure on Iran or real cooperation with NATO. Don't bet on it.

One caution is appropriate, however. The New START debate largely ignored Russia's internal politics. The administration next wants to wrap up Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization and graduate it from the Jackson-Vanik amendment. At that point, concerns about the sorry state of Russian democracy will come roaring back.

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