Jeffrey LewisS is for Strategic, T is for …

Do you know why the New START treaty doesn’t deal with tactical nuclear weapons?

Because it starts with a f’cking S, that’s why.

Last night, the Senate turned back an amendment by Idaho Senator Jim Risch to include a 49 word sentence about tactical nuclear weapons in the preamble of  New START — which, recall, stands for the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty.  “The net result of amending the preamble, and thus the treaty,” as Senator Lugar argued, would be “to kill it.” The Senate will now turn to the remainder of the some 42 amendments that have been proposed to either the treaty or Senator Lugar’s resolution of ratification.

Over the weekend, as I listened to the debate in the Senate, I was reminded of what Avis Bohlen wrote about the objections to the SALT II treaty in the late 1970s. “These were phoney arguments from start to finish.”

“Phoney” is the perfect word, because treaty opponents spent a day debating the treaty the Obama Administration did not negotiate.

Several Senate Republicans took to the floor to complain that the New START Treaty — remember, S is for strategic — does not cover so-called “non strategic” or “tactical” nuclear weapons.

Of course, if the Administration had negotiated that treaty — a massive undertaking that would have been the most complex, intrusive arms control treaty in history, negotiated in less than a year — then Risch et al would be complaining that the Administration didn’t follow the recommendation of the Strategic Posture Commission to initially seek a “modest” reduction in strategic warheads and delivery vehicles that preserved basic verification measures instead.

The Administration took office with less than a year to negotiate a replacement for the New START.  Washington seemed to enjoy a broad, bipartisan consensus that, on US-Russia arms control, “the objective should be to do what can be done in the short term to rejuvenate the process and ensure that strategic arms control survives the end of START I at the end of 2009.”  That was the Strategic Posture Commission, writing in May 2009.

The Administration did precisely that — which meant not expanding the scope of the treaty in ways that would have required considerably more intrusive verification measures. Members of the Strategic Posture Commission, predictably, now disagree now about what they meant when they wrote that sentence, as well as a couple of others we will discuss in a few paragraphs.

But what the Strategic Posture Commission did or did not write doesn’t really matter.

The treaty is the treaty.  The public policy choice is between New START v. No START — not New START v. Old START, or New START v. the Phoney START that Risch asserts the Administration ought to have negotiated.  To reject New START on these grounds, one must both believe that in the near-term New START is worse than no treaty at all and that rejecting it will, in the long-term, make some other, better treaty more likely.  That’s insane.  As Senate Lugar has argued repeatedly: “Rejecting the Treaty would guarantee that no agreement on tactical nukes would occur.”

Risch et al recited, cleverly, a litany of criticisms from Democrats about the failure of the 2002 Moscow Treaty to include tactical nuclear weapons. Of course, as several Democrats pointed out, they ended up voting for the Moscow Treaty without any treaty-killing preamble changes.  Even if the Moscow Treaty was not optimal, it was better than the alternative.

The lesson that the Administration and the Russians are learning from this debate is not that the Administration should have been more bold, but that even a modest measure like New START faces determined opposition.  That is certainly the lesson I am taking away.  If the Senate were to reject the treaty, pretty much everyone will conclude that the Obama Administration is out of the treaty business.


Why do I bother? If you don’t already think that the opposition to New START is largely political, rather than on the merits, I am not going to convince you. There are substantive objections to the treaty, of course, but none that are worth killing it over.

Still, I might be able to convince some thoughtful conservatives that they owe us more.

Here is the problem: Risch et al are going on at length now about how the treaty ought to cover tactical nuclear weapons.  Once the New START is ratified (and the Russians follow suit), Rose Gottemoeller (or someone like her) will begin discussions with the Russians on a follow-on treaty.  If you believe Senator Risch, he wants those discussions to produce a treaty that covers all nuclear weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons.

So, let’s stipulate that Rose starts with discussions about conceptual approaches to including non-deployed weapons, begins formal negotiations sometime around the end of the first Obama term, with the goal of having either another treaty before the 2015 NPT Review Conference.  When Rose, or her successor, brings back a treaty in 2015 that limits both sides to something like 2,500 nuclear weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons, do you think Jim Risch will champion the measure on the Hill?  Nope.

Which brings us back to make to my “plea for Senate Republicans to play a constructive, engaged role, rather than being arm-chair negotiators.”  We actually agree that something needs to be done about Russian tactical nuclear weapons.  I’ve made the case that this means more, not less, arms control. That is, also, the nominal message of the Risch Amendment.  But this is going to be really tough, because it will require transparency into general-purpose military forces and, in part, test site activities — which raises the politically challenging issue of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

I understand that Republicans have a hard time with the Test Ban, but it is going to be very difficult to verify limits on tactical nuclear weapons without some progress on test site transparency. In other words, dealing with Russian tactical nuclear weapons is going to be too complex to survive the kind of the phoney efforts to “fix” the treaty that opponents are trying with New START.


Senator Risch mentioned that six members of the Strategic Posture Commission — all Republican appointees, by the way — have written a letter — posted on the Republican Policy Committee website, by the way– disputing a State Department fact sheet that asserted “Deferring negotiations on tactical nuclear weapons until after a START successor agreement had been concluded was also the recommendation of the Perry-Schlesinger Congressional Strategic Posture Commission..”

The Skeptical Six — Schlesinger, Cartland, Ikle, Foster, Payne and Woolsey — have written to complain that “this does not resemble the recommendation the Commission made on Russian tactical nuclear weapons.”

How dishonest.  The State Department sentence does not, in fact, resemble the recommendation on Russian tactical nuclear weapons.  It resembles the recommendation on New START!

The letter carefully avoids quoting the Commission recommendations on New START — and for a reason!   A plain reading of the Final Report of the Strategic Posture Commission makes clear that “defer” is precisely the proper summary of what was agreed.  Let’s take a look, shall we?

First, the Commissioners completed the report after the April 2009 Obama-Medvedev Joint Statement that defined the scope of the treaty as “the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms.” Here is what the Commissioners wrote about the April 2009 Joint Statement:

In the effort to renew the U.S.-Russian arms control process, the first step should be modest and straightforward. It is more important to reinvigorate the strategic arms control process than to strive for bold new initiatives. Toward this end, Presidents Obama and Medvedev agreed in early April 2009 to negotiate a new arms control treaty before the expiration of START I at the end of 2009. A mutual reduction of operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons in some increment should be achievable. This first reduction could be a modest one, but the objective should be to do what can be done in the short term to rejuvenate the process and ensure that strategic arms control survives the end of START I at the end of 2009.

Wow, that’s some tough language. (sarcasm)  The reaction to the April 2009 joint statement amounted to “good, don’t do anything bold.  You know, like trying to include tactical nuclear weapons for the first time ever.”

Second, in case that paragraph wasn’t entirely clear, the Commission explicitly stated that the Administration should undertake measures to address “complex” factors like nonstrategic weapons in the steps beyond the “modest first step” of  ensuring a successor to START I.  And, last I checked, in English, beyond is a synonym for after.  Again, here is the relevant passage:

The United States and Russia should pursue a step-by-step approach and take a modest first step to ensure that there is a successor to START I when it expires at the a renewal of arms control end of 2009. Beyond a modest incremental reduction in operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons, the arms control process becomes much more complex as new factors are introduced. One of the most important factors will be the imbalance of non-strategic nuclear weapons.

Just admit that you want out of the deal!

There would be no shame in these six saying, “It’s nice to be on a blue-ribbon Commission, sipping orange juice with other gray-beards. But that was a long-time ago and we don’t even remember what we had for breakfast, though from Keith’s tie, Fred has deduced it was something with salsa.  In any event, we didn’t give Bill Perry our proxy, the recommendations have to be taken as a whole, and Mama Grizzly is threatening to eat us if we support the treaty, so, you know, forget we ever said anything about a modest first step.”

That would, at least, be honest.  Look, I ran one of these projects. I understand how quickly wordsmithed compromises break down as senior people forget to what they just agreed — and let’s face it, the Commissioners were seniors. (Mean age: 72) As I wrote at the time, the Strategic Posture Commission was the “appearance of consensus, not the real thing.”

The wordsmithing required to bridge deep, fundamental differences between 12 idiosyncratic members does not represent a consensus that can be transported beyond those specific individuals. In most cases, it can’t even be transported beyond the agreed text — it is ephemeral. As commissioners have started paraphrasing, the “consensus” that seemed so clear has disappeared, like a shimmering mirage.


  1. cgb (History)

    Waaaah! Buy me what I want or I’ll hold my breath and puke all over the Best Buy showroom.

  2. Scott Monje (History)

    Foreign Minister Lavrov today said that it’s not Russia’s place to interfere in US internal politics, but from Russia’s perspective, the treaty was negotiated “on a strictly parity basis,” corresponds to both sides’ interests, and cannot be reopened and renegotiated.

  3. John F. Opie (History)

    I wholeheartedly concur that trying to move tactical weapons and delivery systems into this is … well, just plain dumb. As you said: it’s about strategic weapons and delivery systems, not tactical. Seriously duh.

    But I think that there is something fundamentally problematic with the apparent fact that this appears to be a truly binary decision: either you ratify this treaty, with its problematic tying of defensive and offensive weapons, as well as the questions about verification issues, or we have no treaty whatsoever.

    That is extraordinarily bad politics: if the treaty is truly this important – and you won’t find me wanting no treaty whatsoever – then it should never have come to this point. I clearly remember the intensive public debate about the first SALT and START treaties back when politicians could be bothered to pay attention. Now you have this administration presenting a binary choice: my way or the highway. That works once. This Administration will find it very, very hard to get anything else similar out of the Senate without some very hard push-back.

    Given the alternatives, it needs to be ratified. Period.

    But this only serves to reinforce the doubts of the ability of a Democratic administration to negotiate a solid treaty that can be ratified by the US Senate.

    Lavrov as per Scott Monje’s response is absolutely correct: there cannot be any revisions and renegotiations for a treaty like this. Trying to do so means that there will be no such treaty. The US insisted on exactly this position back during SALT and the first START treaties, and it is the only alternative.

    This Administration is being hoisted on its own petard: this is appallingly bad politics to bring this the way it is to the Senate.

    Again, it should be ratified, because the alternative is worse. But this current state of affairs is, shall we say, a seriously sub-optimal solution.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      Extraordinarily bad politics? Just how many treaties are rewritten in the Senate? This isn’t a case of the administration pushing a bad treaty. It’s been endorsed by the military and generations of present and past experts in the field. The only past national security adviser who opposed it (Judge Clark, part of Reagan’s fast rotating team) was the one who was nearly rejected by a Republican-controlled Senate for the position of deputy secretary of state because he didn’t know anything about foreign policy and openly admitted it in hearings. This is a case of the Republicans opposing it for political reasons (blatantly misrepresenting the publicly available Perry-Schlesinger report in the process, not that that is the law of the land in any case) and then accusing the administration of pushing it for political reasons.

  4. Coyote (History)


    Nicely said.

    Too much political clout has been spent on a treaty between two countries that have no intention of going to war with each other… and each one is anxious to reduce the expense of its nuclear arsenal… and get the photo op for doing so. This was easy, but they got fancy and linked a lot of other issues to the treaty.

    The lesson: Next time, don’t rush and keep it simple.


    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      I take your point, Coyote, as being that the US and Russia should wait until they have some intention of going to war with each other before trying to make any more progress on nuclear arms control. I have heard it said, usually (actually exclusively) by opponents of arms control, that arms control is only possible when it is irrelevant. I don’t agree with that, but you seem to be insisting it should be so. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that arms control is actually irrelevant at the present time, and therefore possible. Very good. Let’s get on with it then, before it becomes impossible again.

  5. FSB (History)

    John said: “This Administration is being hoisted on its own petard.”

    Exactly — Obama pre-emptively caved on MD and for $ to NNSA.

    Obama should learn that his neo-Lincoln dream is just that. You have to play hardball with the current crop of republicans and giving them what they want, as with children, is never smart.

    Too bad Obama did not hew to his principles (backing only a _tested_ MD and no RRW) and gave candy when the children cried.

    Now they obviously want more candy.

    They ought to be spanked instead. And I would normally support that, but many of the republicans, given their past record, would likely enjoy that.

  6. HoC (History)

    I see a problem in continuing the delination between strategic and tactical weapons, and I think this is one of the driving points against the New START. The US has a few hundred more deployed strategic weapons, but is vastly outnumbered in the number of ‘non-strategic’ nukes compared to Russia. When reaching an agreement on purely the numbers of warheads, delivery systems, etc., New START reduces the US stockpile in return for some transparency and verification.

    If and when New START is ratified and the US wishes to engage the Russians in reducing their tactical nuclear stockpile, what can make the deal palatable for the Russians, who believe they must maintain these smaller devices to deter China from pulling a ‘Ghengis Kahn’ across Asia?

    True, second-guessing the negotiators who got their marching orders from this administration is ludicrous. But instead of settling for a short gain, the past and current US administrations could have extended the scope of negotations to whole-of-program reductions.

    Counter-arguments jump-to from Coyote’s closing point: “Next time, don’t rush and keep it simple.” Adding thousand of devices previously uncounted into the provisions of a new treaty would definitely not be keeping it simple, and one of the ways to ‘sweeten the pot’ for Russia would be to add another class of weapons (missile interceptors). That makes it unratifiable.

    And including other countries into the mix (another un-helpful objection) would lead to a UN-like Tower of Babel where nothing gets done but lots of money is wasted.

    So, where does this leave the US? Do they accept an imperfect treaty or try for something better? Is there a way to include non-strategic weapons at all? There is a lot to debate here, and it is the Senate’s job to do so. Why not do this when there is time to really concentrate on the ramifications? Why not find a time when the senators can clear the legislative calendar and dig into the debate? Mostly because of politics.

    How sad.

    • Anon (History)

      After New START passes — which it will, you and Kyl can sit down with the Russians to talk about the tacnukes.

      You will have lots of time.

      You can also try to cut funding for missile defenses that everyone knows don’t work and are a waste of US tax dollars. As Kyl is a conservative and does not like to waste money I am sure he will cut missile defense.

  7. Coyote (History)

    Hi, Mark!

    It was nice having a beer with you back in D.C.

    Perhaps I didn’t make my point clearly—sorry for that. I think now is a fabulous time for a New START treaty–which I support, by the way. My point is that there is no need to rush. If New START does not pass, as I expect it will, then we are not going to instantly pick up the sword—neither are the Russians. We’ll just go back to discussion and negotiations. I disagree with the notion that this would be an embarrassment for the administration, so long as they immediately re-engage in discussions and keep the goal clearly stated in all public and private venues.

    My point is that treaties should be kept very short and very simple. That would make it easier for the Senate to act. Linking other issues to the treaty, as John points out, has allowed a complicated mess to be made of things. It would be no different regardless of which party controlled the administration or the Senate majority. Such is the nature of party politics. There’s no need to point fingers.

    Then again, if it weren’t for all this political wrangling the cottage industry of think tanks and lobbyists, which is at the core of the arms control community, would fold. We certainly don’t want to see the contributors out of a job and wandering the streets during the holiday season!

    Hey, let me ask you your thoughts on something. What do you think would have happened if they had merely taken SALT II, lowered the numbers on systems discussed therein, made the dates relevant, continued with the verification procedures contained therein, and called it SALT III. Would using the template of a previous treaty help things along?

    Look forward to your thoughts.



    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      I assume that’s why they called it “New START.”

      Beep beep!

  8. Nick F (History)

    Looks like the votes are nearly locked up, and the tally is climbing. A fitting gift for the Nondenominational Winter Celebration!

  9. jeannick (History)

    good luck on tacticals ,
    they are a supremely defensive tool ,
    to be used when one’s homeland is threatened
    Russia’s history has taught the country that paranoia is a healthy attitude
    especially as the missile defense vampire kept popping up

  10. sferrin (History)

    So maybe the OP could explain why a treaty involving strategic nuclear weapons says anything whatsoever about missile defense? Talk about apples and oranges.

  11. sferrin (History)

    @Anon: “Everyone knows missile defense doesn’t work”? Get out of the echo chamber man. Of course it works. Is it 100%? Obviously not. Is 80% better than 0%? Most definitely. There isn’t a defense of any sort that is 100% effective and it would be naive to the extreme to expect missile denfense would be any different.

  12. Anne Bazuin (History)

    1 – Any reduction of nuclear weapons is welcome to me. I favor every effort to negociate with our adverseries to stop production, development and testing of these weapons and their delivery systems,
    2 – All methods, be it strategically, tactically or dirty poisioning, should be included.
    3 – People who have knowledge of this subjects should make their opinion public, regardless of the consequences for their own position.
    4 -To some extend this is done in . That is why I read this publication.

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