Patrick Therriault, Columnist

Ideology: Republican  |  Writing from: Connecticut

With the omnibus “Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act” out of Congress’ pipeline as of last Thursday, the two chambers have just a few more days before the end of the session to clear the docket of critical legislation. And before the compositional shift occurs with the 112th Session, Democratic majority leaders have an impetus to push through as many of the bills introduced on their watch as possible. One such item currently waiting in the wings is the bilateral nuclear arms pact between the U.S. and Russia, otherwise known as “New START” (STrategic Arms Reduction Treaty). This new treaty would replace the former START that expired last December, which was originally signed at the conclusion of the Cold War in 1991. Beyond its stated objectives and Protocol, New START is aptly named for its broader international significance. Surely the treaty would go a long way towards shoring up the U.S.-Russia relationship, but just as importantly, the treaty’s covenants also would allow for increased cooperation on nonproliferation—an important feature in the face of North Korea and Iran’s armament.

As the Senate is constitutionally empowered to ratify international treaties, with a two-thirds vote requirement no less, the responsibility for entering the U.S. into this critical pact falls onto 100 elected officials in the 11th hour of a “lame duck Congress.” 

Terrific.

The Treaty

The New START was signed by US-President Obama and Russian-President Medvedev. The two nations agreed to the following provisions and Protocol:

-          A 1,550 cap on deployed nuclear warheads (according to best estimates, the US currently has nearly 2,000 active warheads, while Russia has more that 2,500)

-          A 700 limit on missiles

-          An 800 limit on domestic and international missile silos

-          Verification Requirements: the new treaty calls for a new system of guidelines and information sharing to strengthen the enforcement of the 1968 UN Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Each nation is required to:

  • Exchange data about its arsenal size and force
  • Notify the other when major changes take place
  • Allow up to 18 short-notice inspections by an international body each year

-          The treaty is to last for 10 years

Source: State Department

The treaty has become somewhat of a controversial issue on Capitol Hill, dividing Senate Republicans led by Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) who oppose the treaty, and Senate Democrats who see the treaty as fair and a potential feather in President Obama’s hat. That there is even debate on a nuclear arms treaty comes as a surprise, as it has always been a very bipartisan topic—who could object to Ronald Regan’s 1982 challenge to the Soviets for mutual warhead reduction? But modern-day Senate Republicans gripes with the treaty are two-fold. As the Republican Whip, Mr. Kyl has criticized the treaty for limiting the U.S.’ ability to counter future nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, while also citing its transparency-oriented verification measures as inadequate. Though it remains unclear whether Mr. Kyl actually will be able to shepherd all of the Senate’s GOP votes against the treaty, the combination of his political clout and expertise on nuclear issues in the chamber does not bode well for its passage.

Mr. Obama, joined by a host of U.S. military leaders, sees the treaty’s ratification of utmost importance. Not only would it sooth relations with Russia and be a “win” for his administration, but it would also give the U.S. credibility in asking for international support in pressuring North Korea and Iran to drop their nuclear programs. Russian leaders adamantly support the treaty as well. In addition to Mr. Medvedev, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Larov has expressed his desire for the treaty to pass the Senate so that the Duma—the Russian legislature—may ratify it as well.

There is some sense that the arms reduction treaty carries fiscal significance in both countries, as it is expensive to maintain thousands of nuclear missiles around the globe. Yet, it may cost the U.S. more to ratify the treaty than not if Mr. Kyl has his way. To get a sense of how important the Obama administration views this treaty, Mr. Obama’s left hand—in collaboration with the military—offered Senate Republicans 80 billion dollars over the next 10 years to modernize the U.S. nuclear program (while his right hand is promoting massive spending cuts and tax increases on the wealthy).      

Will New START Pass before the 111th Ends?

Among the other bills currently waiting floor time in both chambers, the New START treaty is probably the most interesting one left, mostly because of the level of politicking surrounding it vis-à-vis its legitimate significance, both domestically and internationally (see this advertisement put out by The American Values Network that recreates the infamous “Daisy” campaign ad for Lyndon Johnson). For those of us who have no real memories of life during the Cold War, the threat of a Russian nuclear attack is more theoretical than a deep-seated fear. In the 70 years since going nuclear, the world’s narrow nuclear club has witnessed only two non-test bomb detonations. But lately, the fear of unstable states—susceptible to falling into terrorist or revolutionary hands –going nuclear has become all too real. Even if it limits the U.S.’ ability to dispatch additional nuclear warheads, New START’s greatest power will be realized with the mutual trust that it engenders between the U.S. and Russia. For the U.S. to make real progress on non-proliferation, it needs Russia as a partner, not a source of tension. This is an opportunity for such a partnership to be affirmed.