Not a Bad START
It was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, SALT, with the old Soviet Union in 1972. It was another Republican president, the elder George Bush, who signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START, with Russia in 1993. But it was a Democratic president who signed the New Start treaty, and that seems to be the problem.
The treaty, signed by US president Barack Obama and Russian president Dmitri Medvedev in Prague last April, is unambitious in comparison to Obama's vision of "a world without nuclear weapons," but it is a useful document. It mandates 30 percent cuts in deployed strategic nuclear weapons by both sides, and it is the cornerstone of a new era of US-Russian cooperation.
The cuts are valuable in themselves, because they oblige the two countries, which together possess 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, to go down to 1,550 warheads each. The treaty also imposes a drastic reduction in delivery vehicles (intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and long-range bombers) from 1,600 for each country under the last treaty to only 700 in future.
But the symbolic importance of the New Start treaty is at least as important, as it was the first concrete step in the reconciliation of the two former superpowers after the growing hostility of the last decade.
The immediate diplomatic benefits of the treaty for the United States have included Russian support for harsher sanctions in response to Iran's alleged nuclear weapons programme, Russian logistical support for NATO's operation in Afghanistan (Moscow is supplying one-third of the fuel used by US troops there), and a remarkable degree of Russian-American coordination in dealing with the violent chaos in Kyrgyzstan earlier this year.
You can, of course, criticise the specific content of each of these policies, but you cannot deny that US-Russian cooperation is in general a good thing. Nor can you deny that it depends on mutual trust, which would be drastically undermined by a US refusal to ratify the New Start treaty. Yet that is what now seems likely to happen.
In order to ratify an international treaty, the US Senate must pass it by a two-thirds vote: 67 out of 100 senators. That means the administration must get eight Republicans to vote for it even in the outgoing Senate, where the Democrats hold 59 seats. But when the new senators elected in the mid-term elections early this month take their seats in January, the Democratic majority will be a bare 51 seats.
After that, ratifying the treaty would require sixteen Republican senators to vote for it, which is virtually impossible to imagine. That's why President Obama is desperate to get the treaty ratified by the current "lame-duck" session of Congress, which has less than four weeks to run. The omens are not good.
The question is whether eight Republican congressmen are willing to put the national interest ahead of their partisan desire to deprive Obama of his one major foreign policy success. They would have to ignore not only the unanimous support for the treaty among senior US military leaders, but also the impressively bipartisan group of former secretaries of state and defence who went to Congress with Obama last week to back it.
"If we don't get the treaty, (the Russians) are not constrained in their development of force structure," General Kevin Chilton, head of US nuclear forces, told the Senate. Moreover, the US would no longer have the right to inspect Russian nuclear sites (and vice versa), which is essential to maintaining confidence between the two countries. "So it's the worst of both possible worlds," he concluded.
But that is strategy and diplomacy; this is politics. Senator Jon Kyl, the Republican whip in the Senate, says there is not enough time to push the treaty through during the lame-duck session, although it has already been through seven months of deliberations and 20 hearings in the Senate.
He may just be seeking further inducements from the White House (which has already promised an extra $4 billion will be spent on "modernising" US nuclear forces). More likely, he is playing for time until the current session expires, after which the new contingent of more radical Republicans will take the lead in trashing the treaty. He is too old school ever to accuse Obama of "selling out" the country, but they probably will.
Game, set and match to the Republicans, but what about the country and the world? The consequence of an American refusal to ratify the treaty would not be a new Cold War, but a deeply disillusioned Russia that had concluded that the United States was not a trustworthy partner. Cooperation would diminish in the world, and confrontations would grow.
More importantly, there would be no restrictions whatever on how many nuclear weapons, of which kinds, the two countries could produce - nor would either country be under any obligation to let the other know what it was up to.
Worst of all, it would provide hawks in the emerging great powers, China and India, with a wonderful pretext for demanding more nuclear weapons. Why should they restrict themselves to about 180 and 60 respectively, when the older great powers have several thousand of the things?