New START: Can Five GOP Secretaries of State Be Wrong?

Original Article

In a Washington Post op-ed, five former secretaries of state—all of whom served under Republican presidents—urged ratification of the New START Treaty, although they did not press for ratification during the current lame duck session. Could they all be wrong? In a word: Yes …

The authors argue: (1) New START promotes verification; (2) New START permits missile defenses; (3) New START’s ratification will win Obama administration support for “essential” nuclear force modernization. All these arguments are demonstrably defective, flying in the face of inconvenient contrary fact.


As I argued in a recent HUMAN EVENTS article, the “Swiss-cheese verification” provisions in New START are worse than no verification at all, they merely give the illusion of adequate verification. Under the treaty Russia need only decrypt five of its ballistic missile tests. This means that they can allow us to monitor tests of the older missiles, about which we already know a lot, while encrypting telemetry data from flight tests of their newest missiles, about which we know the least. A June Heritage Foundation report, “Potemkin Village Verification” details numerous shortfalls in New START’s verification provisions, versus earlier arms agreements.

Worse, the secretaries of state ignored that the administration created its own verification trap by failing to secure a bridging agreement indefinitely extending the stronger verification language in the START treaties ratified over the past two decades. Because Russia needs arms reduction more than we do—its economy is in far worse shape than our own—we had leverage to insist that a verification bridge be a predicate to negotiating a new arms treaty. The Obama administration is thus in the position of the proverbial kid who kills his parents and then asks the court for mercy because he is an orphan.

Missile Defense.

Far from being protected, missile defensefaces obstacles that in real life will give Russia a veto over America’s missile defense programs. Two senior Reagan-era officials wrote that Ronald Reagan would never have assented to an arms treaty that constrained America’s missile defense options. In this vein they noted that New START accepts current defenses only, and thus it has a bias against future systems. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has flatly stated that Russia regards other forms of missile defense as being banned by the treaty. Disputes to be hashed out by a Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC) require mutual agreement, which Russia will not give on missile defense. And if Team Obama persists, Russia can simply threaten to pull out of the treaty, a step that will be highly effective against an administration openly and passionately committed to ratifying the treaty in its present form.

We have in fact seen this movie a generation ago, when under the 1972 ABM Treaty banning current systems the ban was not to apply to research on systems based upon “different physical principles.” Lasers fit the bill, but the Soviets and American arms control theologians fought tooth and nail to interpret the section as narrowly as possible. Worse still is that the WikiLeak diplomatic cables show that this spring administration officials held four meetings to draft a new ballistic missile defense cooperation agreement (BMDCA) with Moscow. In June Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates both testified on Capitol Hill to the contrary: no such deal was under consideration, they said. This hardly suggests confidence in promises by the administration.

Nor can we trust in Russia’s compliance. The Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. officials believe Russia has clandestinely moved tactical nuclear warheads into areas close to several NATO countries. This appears to violate several commitments made in the post-Cold War START treaties.

While the U.S. retains 1,100 tactical nuclear warheads in Europe, down from 5,000 in 1991, Russia still has a huge tactical nuclear arsenal. In 1991 estimates of Moscow’s arsenal ranged from 12,000 to 21,700. Heritage Foundation scholar James Jay Carafano puts Russia’s tactical warhead total at 10,000 today.

And finally, ratifying the treaty with reservations insisting on full missile defense rights (or anything else) is, as I noted in a second HUMAN EVENTS article, a “Swiss-cheese ratification trap” that has no legal or practical effect whatsoever. When the Soviet Union substituted the 6-warhead SS-19 ICBM for the far smaller single-warhead SS-11, we protested the move a violating the 1972 SALT I arms limitation agreement. We took our case to the Standing Consultative Commission (SCC). But the Russians simply declined to agree, and the SS-19 was deployed in due course. New START’s BCC is a clone of the SALT SCC, and will work no better in resolving disputes.


Modernization is indeed essential, as the authors say. But its very essentiality should decouple its consideration from the treaty. Put simply, that which is essential should be done anyway, and not be tied to a treaty of debatable merit.


As with any other treaty, people with sterling credentials are lined up on both sides. Credentials, however, should not trump facts inconvenient to one’s position. New START will not ensure adequate verification, will not ensure missile defense upgrades and is not needed to justify nuclear forces modernization. Thus five Secretaries of State can be, and in this case are, wrong.

John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a trustee of the Hudson Institute, author of The Long War Ahead and the Short War Upon Us, and founder of the issues blog Letter From the Capitol.

John Wohlstetter

Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute
John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute (beg. 2001) and the Gold Institute for International Strategy (beg. 2021). His primary areas of expertise are national security and foreign policy, and the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He is author of Sleepwalking With The Bomb (2nd ed. 2014), and The Long War Ahead and The Short War Upon Us (2008). He was founder and editor of the issues blog Letter From The Capitol (2005-2015). His articles have been published by The American Spectator, National Review Online, Wall Street Journal, Human Events, Daily Caller, PJ Media, Washington Times and others. He is an amateur concert pianist, residing in Charleston, South Carolina.