President Obama pushed his New START Treaty through Congress before Christmas. Do not celebrate. The Russians will, and should.
Why? First, the Russians got an arms-reduction treaty negotiated on their terms, relieving them of the pressure to maintain a strategic nuclear arsenal beyond what the economic base permits, enabling them to hide telemetry test data on their newest strategic missiles and giving them treaty language (in the preamble) linking offensive and defensive systems. Santa Claus sent Moscow a gift before he even left the North Pole.
Online news-hound Andrew Breitbart reported recent statements by Russian leaders on how New START is a deal favoring Russia:
National Defense magazine editor Igor Korotchenko told the RIA Novosti news agency that Russia was now likely to keep just 390 missiles and bombers as it looks to save money ahead of a new round of strategic reductions in 2020.
And Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov saw nothing but the treaty’s advantages as he defended it in parliament Friday.
“We will not have to make any cuts to our strategic offensive weapons,” Serdyukov told sceptical lawmakers from the Communist opposition. “But the Americans — they will indeed have to make some cuts.”
“Serdyukov is right,” said Moscow’s Center for Disarmament Director Anatoly Dyakov. “Russia has already met its launcher obligations. It only has 560 of those.”
Thus did Russia “reset” its strategic arms position with America.
Second, the Russians successfully scared off amendments to the treaty text by warning they would exit the treaty were any proposed.
Third, the Russians won pell-mell last-minute ratification from Congress, despite having said earlier that they could wait until next year for passage.
Fourth, the Russians won passage even having publicly reiterated their position that the treaty language (in the preamble) links offensive and defensive systems, giving Moscow a say in what missile defense we deploy. Unilateral statements on our part or reservations not assented to by the Russians are of zero legal effect.
Fifth, in swaying wavering GOP Senators to vote for the treaty, the Democrats succeeded in signaling the Russians that maintaining a cordial atmosphere with the Russians is sufficiently important to skeptical Senators to justify voting for a treaty whose merits they doubted. Expect Moscow to look for other opportunities to exploit such sentiments.
Sixth, while the treaty has an exit clause enabling the administration or a successor administration to exit the treaty, the chance of President Obama abandoning a treaty to which he is so passionately committed is zero. While a Republican administration might do so in pursuit of wider missile defense options, the opposition needs only 41 senators to block funding for new missile defense systems or condition funding upon negotiation of a new strategic arms treaty, in which case Moscow will enter with a strong bargaining position.
Hark back to the original SALT I Treaty signed by the Nixon administration in 1972. Henry Kissinger later wrote in his first volume of memoirs that SALT was the political price paid by the administration to win funding for strategic modernization programs. This time, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) negotiated a similar deal to secure modernization. Although it did not win his vote, it surely influenced other, wavering Senators.
Seventh, and worst of all, the treaty resuscitates arms control as the reigning strategic nuclear-arms theology, ahead of force structure, by relinking offensive and defensive systems. While President George W. Bush paid rhetorical tribute to such linkage, the SORT Treaty (Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty) of 2002 (also known as the Moscow Treaty) contained no language linking offense and defensive systems. Indeed, as arms negotiator Douglas Feith recently wrote, the Bush team resolutely refused to put missile defense on the table, and Moscow relented. Nobody can reasonably believe President Obama would walk away from his New START arms-control centerpiece, as did Ronald Reagan in 1986 at Reykjavik, when President Reagan rejected a nuclear-zero by 2000 offer from Mikhail Gorbachev, because he wanted to keep pursuing missile defense without constraint by treaty.
Eventually domestic arms controllers, whose supporters in Congress threw serial roadblocks in the way of advanced strategic defense deployment, accomplished what Gorbachev failed to achieve. They used the SALT I ABM Treaty language, although that treaty clearly permitted systems based upon “different physical principles.”
Obama and his supporters believe that by setting an example with superpower arms control we establish the moral and practical basis to ask other nations to reduce their arsenals. Anyone who thinks Iran or North Korea will follow our good example commits the same error America committed in unilaterally reducing our stockpile starting in 1967 and unilaterally halting nuclear force modernization in 1992. Iran and North Korea commenced their programs in the 1980s. Even our allies did not follow our 1992 qualitative moratorium.
Ardent arms controllers, put simply, never met an arms agreement they did not like. Even a treaty that limits American systems without making the Russians eliminate their systems, as is the case with New START, meets with their assent. New START offers not one whit of protection from the rogue-state nuclear threat, nor from terrorists who might obtain a bomb from such states.
On the plus side, Republican opponents of New START did score some successes. As defense expert Peter Huessy notes, the Senate’s ratification was made contingent upon President Obama committing to a beefed-up strategic modernization program and also to more forcefully stating that the U.S. right to deploy missile defense is unaffected by the treaty.
The President must certify his commitment to do these things before the treaty enters into legal force. While such positions do not bind Russia, they raise the political cost of an American administration ignoring them in the future.
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.