New START Shouldn’t Be Stopped

The Senate is still due to consider ratifying the U.S.-Russia New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, though maybe not during the lame-duck session. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is now talking about delaying the vote, not stopping it entirely.

Ratification would be a modest step forward for arms control. Even more important, it would be a significant step forward for the U.S.-Russia relationship — which is working substantially better now than in years past.

In addition, the pact does not prejudge the prospects for moving toward the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, sought by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama and so many others. So skeptics of that idea need not worry about this treaty.

Nor does it impede Washington in its missile defense efforts. While some conservatives do not like the treaty’s allusion to missile defense, there is no binding language that constrains them.

New START is not a huge, landmark accomplishment. It’s not enough to warrant major bragging rights for the White House in the already-looming 2012 presidential race. But it is sound policy.

The specifics of the accord are simple enough. Only long-range nuclear systems are limited, though any follow-on treaty would presumably have to begin to account for the many thousands of warheads associated with tactical weapons, as well as surplus inventories in both countries’ arsenals.

Each country may have 700 operational launchers, including long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable bombers. On those launchers, each side may deploy up to 1,550 countable warheads — though the total could be a few hundred more, since the treaty counts bombers as carrying just one warhead, regardless of actual loading.

These numbers represent reductions of roughly 10 percent relative to those in the soon-to-expire Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, signed by President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2002. To verify limits, each side is allowed up to 18 inspections a year on the other’s territory, as well as by satellite and other remote means.

These facts and figures are significant, and the new, lower limits are useful. They are likely to further reduce excessive nuclear stockpiles without opening up any invitation to the medium nuclear powers (with warhead arsenals in the low hundreds) to try to reach the nuclear superpower club while Moscow and Washington scale back.

But the treaty’s specific provisions are not the big thing here. Indeed, at a broader strategic level, I would have preferred that Bush’s more casual approach to arms control had succeeded. I agree with him that the United States and Russia should no longer be treating each other as prospective opponents in a nuclear war.

Along these lines, it is regrettable that treaty supporters feel obliged to promise more spending on already well-funded nuclear systems because we are soon going to have to make defense spending cuts to help reduce the deficit. Conventional forces may have to bear an even larger brunt as a result.

Alas, despite the logic of Bush’s simpler concept (including SORT, which was all of three pages), Russia found that approach unappealing. It denied Moscow the trappings of superpowerdom that only its nuclear weapons (and energy resources) provide in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s demise. And U.S.-Russia relations suffered.

Thus, not as a matter of partisan politics or Cold War nostalgia or even love for treaties, but simply as an empirical decision, the Obama administration was right to return to a more formal arms-control methodology. Its hope was that the bilateral relationship would strengthen, creating other benefits around the world.

And those benefits have emerged. The progress in the U.S.-Russia relationship has probably been the most important foreign policy accomplishment of this administration. At a narrow, arms-control level, progress on New START helped pave the way last spring for the Washington nuclear summit, which included commitments from many states to further secure sensitive nuclear materials and facilities around the world.

Obama was in a stronger position to convene that summit and press other countries for new commitments because he had begun to put superpower arms control back on track.

New START, combined with Obama’s wise decision to restructure the proposed U.S. missile defense system for central Europe, gave a boost to ties between Moscow and Washington that has helped U.S. foreign policy in other ways as well.

Perhaps one-third of all North Atlantic Treaty Organization supplies for the Afghanistan war, for example, now flow through what is called the northern distribution system. Several routes make up the NDS: Some pass through Russia; others involve former Soviet republics (like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), where Moscow can create major obstacles if it wants. Yet the flow of supplies has dramatically increased in recent years.

Most of all, the U.S.-Russia relationship is now helping apply greater pressure on Iran. Moscow has agreed to far tighter United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran’s high-technology trade, and it recently refused to sell Tehran advanced surface-to-air missiles.

Regrettably, after a long delay, Russia did help Iran begin operations at its Bushehr nuclear reactor complex — reminding us, if any had forgotten, that the U.S.-Russia relationship remains far from perfect. But the progress has still been substantial.

Moreover, while Moscow has not relented in its quasi-occupation of two autonomous zones in Georgia, there have been no subsequent Russian tank marches in Tbilisi or elsewhere. Russia has also helped tighten U.N. sanctions on North Korea after its 2009 nuclear test.

Those who claim, nostalgically, that U.S. politics used to “stop at the water’s edge” base their arguments more on myth than on fact. That is not really the norm in U.S. foreign policymaking — except at unusual times of national unity, like World War II.

But perhaps with this president, at this moment, the myth can resemble reality.

The GOP need not obstruct New START out of any political strategy aimed at recovering the Senate and the White House in 2012. It can vote its conscience on this treaty and base political strategy on other, mostly domestic issues.

GOP senators should join Democrats in supporting the treaty. It is solid enough to warrant the 85 or more votes that arms-control pacts have often received in the past.