Since the end of the Cold War, Russian and U.S. leaders have valued arms control agreements as symbols of a new era of cooperation. Generally they've been disappointed. The new agreement--announced by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev on March 26--may prove an exception to this rule. Both Obama and Medvedev have seen the treaty, which lays out cuts of hundreds of strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles as the main lever of their so-called "reset." Negotiated after a period of mutual suspicion and nasty rhetoric, it will be seen by many as a sign that better times are at hand. At a minimum, it will be a welcome diplomatic achievement for each president.
U.S. policymakers have in mind a chain of other payoffs as well. They want the new treaty to establish their bona fides at two large multilateral forums this spring--the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April, and the Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York in May. They seem to see a START agreement as laying the foundations for other arms control ventures--UN Security Council agreement on sanctions against Iran, Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, negotiation of a treaty to cut off production of fissile materials for future bomb-making, perhaps a Russian-American agreement on tactical nuclear weapons, or even a revival of the treaty on conventional forces in Europe.
The new START treaty, in other words, is expected to be the key that turns a great many other locks--and the administration is counting on a fast-track ratification process to help the process along. By taking its time in negotiation--and avoiding charges that they were cutting corners to get an agreement at any price--Obama and his advisers have surely helped their chances in the next phase. But they have generally underestimated how long it takes Congress to act. The process of ratification, which requires approval from 67 senators, will inevitably bring out a few real challenges to the treaty.
The most important of these, at least conceptually, will be the same problem that has dogged arms control between the superpowers for decades--the relationship between offensive and defensive systems. It was President George W. Bush's abrogation of the ABM Treaty in 2002 that made Russia unwilling to bring the START II treaty, signed in 1993, into force. Even in the Clinton administration, U.S. efforts to develop limited defenses against the missiles of "rogue states" like North Korea and Iran excited Russian suspicions that their own nuclear deterrent might somehow be undermined as well. More recently, Obama's plans for defensive radars and interceptors in Europe led some Russian officials to say these might eventually prove more threatening than what the Bush administration had planned. And when Russian negotiators proposed new language to limit U.S. defensive efforts, the result was a major delay in talks.
Senators examining the final document will have to satisfy themselves that the administration did not give away anything important to keep Russia happy on this score. Democrats who favor ratification will insist that vague preambular language about a link between offense and defense--said to be part of the breakthrough in talks--has no practical or legal meaning. Republicans who want to undermine the administration's case will probe the negotiating record for hidden commitments. In exchange for their votes some will try to exact pledges to accelerate defensive programs.
This debate is unlikely to imperil ratification. But the underlying problem will not go away. As long as U.S. strategists see "rogue state" capabilities increasing, they will pursue defensive systems, no matter how dubious technically. And as long as Russian strategists treat old-fashioned strategic nuclear parity as a requirement of their own security, they will keep saying that the United States is threatening them.
Years from now, if both sides can shake off a preoccupation with each other's nuclear capabilities, this dynamic may disappear. But the new treaty will not put it to rest.