Michael KreponThe Stakes for New START

Conventional wisdom has it that New START matters only at the margins, fitting comfortably within projected U.S. and Russian strategic plans, foreclosing nothing of substance and costing the usual ransom to assuage skeptics. I’m not buying this line of argument.

The Senate’s consent to ratify New START matters a great deal. To understand why, consider the likely consequences if irreconcilable Republicans are able to block ratification. Their arguments for doing so are so strained that foreign capitals would be justified in concluding that Washington has lost its bearings. America’s standing in the world would take a dive. Friends and allies would count less on Washington. Troublemakers would have more room to maneuver. The currency of international power would continue to flow towards Beijing, and there would be no agreed rules for reductions and verification arrangements for the two largest nuclear arsenals.

These arguments for New START are familiar. With some variation, they date back to the old SALT debates. I remember traveling to Missoula, Montana and elsewhere to champion the merits of the SALT II Treaty. The Carter administration, in which I served, lost this debate for three primary reasons: The strategic balance seemed to be tipping in the Kremlin’s favor, Moscow appeared to be emboldened as a result, and SALT II’s accomplishments were modest. After the 1972 SALT I Interim Agreement opened the barn door for MIRVs, by the time they were rounded up seven years later in SALT II, the numbers weren’t pretty.

The arguments against New START also date back to the SALT debates. They were far more persuasive during the Cold War. Russia is not the former Soviet Union; its Gross Domestic Product is approximately the size of France. Arguments that Moscow has negotiated the United States into a corner lack credibility. In the SALT era, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty strictly limited national missile defenses. The ABM Treaty is now dead, and New START doesn’t revive it. Back in the day, critics of arms control argued, with good reason, that SALT was too permissive. Now they fret, without good reason, that the reductions mandated by New START are too constraining.

The Senate’s vote on New START will speak volumes. It’s hard to lead globally by just saying “no.” The United States needs an internationally-minded Republican Party, one that supports diplomatic efforts to reduce nuclear dangers. How can the United States step confidently into the nuclear future if Republican Senators are so fearful of New START?


  1. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Your warnings about the consequences for U.S. interests should the fire that Mr. Kyl and his friends are playing with get out hand, is very well-put.

    New Start is obviously just the same old Coke in a spiffy new can. It’s status quo arms control — nearly the same numbers, with strengthened verification and confidence-building measures. Nothing here for anyone to get very excited about.

    But The Party Out of Power is playing politics in an egregiously irresponsible, if hardly unusual way. Their motives are transparent: they want to disrupt Obama’s image as a successful statesman and national leader, they want to extract some kind of “win” as the price for a deal they’d otherwise happily accept, and to the extent they care at all about the actual issue, they want to rip the wheels off of Obama’s nuke-free world bandwagon before it goes any further.

    Unfortunately, Obama has already given them everything of substance they’re asking for: A tightly-written and oververified treaty, commitment to continue the missile defense follies, and a shiny new nuke weapons complex, well beyond anything Bush could have delivered. Not to forget the out-of-control GWOTplex, hot war in Afghanistan and elsewhere, cold war vs. Iran, etc. ad nauseam. It must be so frustrating for Kyl, McCain, et al. to have to do scrounge for something else to demand, just so they can say they played hardball and won something.

    Well, sad as it is, the Republican strategy of Just Say No seems to be working, because Obama is looking more and more like a fool for thinking he can make bipartisan policy with a biparty still smarting from its precipitous fall and interested in nothing else but making him look like a fool, derailing his initiatives and getting themselves back into the driver’s seat.

    I don’t think Kyl & Co. really want to undo New Start, but they probably figure the worst that would happen is it doesn’t get ratified, and the verification provisions don’t go into effect, but the numbers more or less stick. Then when they win back the White House, as soon as 2.5 years from now, they can negotiate pretty much the same treaty, and have the Democrats rubber-stamp it.

  2. anon (History)

    Someone should remind the Republicans that they got no extra money for the complex when Bush was President, and they should expect a return to the status quo if they don’t approve New START. They argue that if they don’t get the bribe, the Admin won’t get the treaty. They should also know if the Admin doesn’t get the Treaty, they won’t get the bribe….

  3. 3.1415 (History)

    The currency flow to Beijing will not be appreciably affected by the Treat, rectified or not. Much has been lost (or spent) already, a little treaty about paper tigers matters little. It will be rectified or Mr. Obama should surrender his Nobel Prize. Let’s see how high he needs to jump in order to maneuver the political system that created him and those darn Republican Senators. And let’s not forget that Harry Reid has to take care of his reelection, too.

  4. FSB (History)

    The US political system is ill-suited to international relations: representatives are answerable to small local constituencies who care little about the international scene.

  5. bobbymike (History)

    Is there any reason to oppose any arms control for any reason? All this site does is name call the opposition to the disarmament agenda. Only the opposition plays politics, right? No one on the other side would ever play politics.

    In today’s political environment is it easier to “sell” cutting nukes or building nukes? Usually the politician on the side of the politically expeditious is the one playing politics.

    This treaty does nothing to enhance security or strategic stability. Why the US pegs its weapons to Russia in the post Cold War world is beyond me. That is Cold War thinking. Where are the negotiations with France, Britain and China let alone Pakistan or India?

    There is NO reason to cut below Moscow treaty limits.

  6. Nat Simmon (History)

    “Is there any reason to oppose any arms control for any reason? All this site does is name call the opposition to the disarmament agenda. Only the opposition plays politics, right? No one on the other side would ever play politics.”

    That’s because this site is not about Arms Control – it’s about unilateral-disarmament.

    • kme (History)

      When the US and Russian arsenals are within a country mile of the next largest, we might be able to take complaints about “unilateral disarmament” a little bit seriously.

  7. bobbymike (History)

    Well since the US has reduced the number of strategic weapons in its arsenal by about 80% since the Cold War why not ask others to do the same? How close to parity does the US have to get to ask other nations to give up some of their weapons?

  8. jeannick (History)

    Probably politics , with a great helping of pork
    the U.S. politics are simply insane .
    a pretty good treaty is in jeopardy for keeping an electoral posture while U.S forces protect 90% of the world opium production ….but not their own borders !

    I suppose someone in China is having belly pains from laughing too much