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Return of the Arms Control Era

Author: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow
April 8, 2010

Return of the Arms Control Era - return-of-the-arms-control-era

Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow for Europe Studies


The signing of the new START treaty by President Barack Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev on April 8 marks a seminal point in the history of arms control. After a long hiatus, treaty-based reductions in arms are back in vogue. The United States and Russia are making commitments to significant cuts in their nuclear arsenals. In the recently released Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama administration also narrowed the conditions under which the United States might use its nuclear weapons. In these respects, Obama is making good on his pledge to implement policies that will reduce the risk of nuclear conflict. These steps give Washington momentum and political credibility as it seeks in the months ahead to strengthen the nonproliferation regime.

The agreement's potential impact on U.S.-Russian relations is at least as important as its implications for arms control and nonproliferation. Since his early days in office, Obama has been seeking to give substance to his call to "reset" relations with Russia. Now he has a concrete and important outcome to demonstrate the success of his outreach. It remains to be seen whether the new START treaty lays the foundation for an era of cooperation between Moscow and Washington. It is certainly conceivable that this first major step toward reconciliation proves to be the only such step--and that rapprochement will soon stall. But the new treaty, by building confidence and sending mutual signals of benign intent, could also lay the groundwork for forging common ground on a host of other issues, including Iran, Afghanistan, and the future of European security. Only time will tell whether the Obama-Medvedev meeting will be a turning point, or just a fleeting moment of strategic cooperation.

The new START treaty also gives Obama's foreign policy new and needed credibility at home. The White House has come under considerable criticism for its efforts to engage foes such as Iran, Cuba, and Syria; skeptics charge that Obama has little to show for his efforts. No longer; although Russia is hardly a hardened adversary like Iran, Obama can credibly claim that this diplomatic success with Moscow demonstrates that engagement can yield concrete security benefits. This accomplishment may well buy him more domestic room for maneuver as he seeks reciprocity from some of the other recalcitrant regimes to which Washington has extended a hand. Rapprochement with adversaries takes years, not months. Obama may well have secured himself needed patience by closing a deal with Moscow on arms control.

The battle for a new START treaty is hardly over. It must now win ratification in both Russia's Duma and the U.S. Senate. With two-thirds of the Senate by no means in line, Obama has been wise to proceed cautiously in negotiating the treaty with Russia, ensuring no linkage to U.S. missile defense plans. For similar reasons, Obama was correct to include in the Nuclear Posture Review only a modest change in nuclear doctrine. With polarization making the conduct of foreign policy increasingly difficult, Obama needs to ensure that good policy is backed up by good politics.

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