Following a surprisingly contentious process, the Senate gave consent to ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty—New START—on December 22.  At the end of the day, 13 Republican senators defied their leadership’s wishes, giving New START a comfortable 71 to 26 victory.

See for a description of the treaty.

Few expected New START would prove contentious when signed in April.  The treaty—which reduces U.S. and Russian strategic forces each to no more than 1550 strategic warheads and 700 deployed strategic missiles and bombers—appeared a “no brainer.”  It won endorsement from the U.S. military leadership, American allies and virtually every former Republican secretary of state, secretary of defense and national security advisor.

A number of questions arose about New START’s terms.  Some worried the treaty might constrain missile defense.  In fact, the treaty does not limit planned U.S. programs; its only limit on missile defense keeps the United States from doing something it would never do, as far cheaper options are available.  Persistent critics worried Moscow might blackmail Washington into discarding missile defense by threatening to withdraw from New START.  That threat carried little credibility, however; Russia made a similar threat when signing the 1991 START I Treaty but continued to observe it, despite increased U.S. missile defense efforts and withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. 

Others questioned the treaty’s verification measures:  would they suffice to detect Russian cheating?  The U.S. intelligence community and military responded that the verification provisions gave them confidence that they could detect any militarily significant violation in time to respond before American security was undercut.

See for a more detailed discussion of specific issues that arose regarding the treaty.

Over the summer, Senate committees held more than 20 hearings and briefings, and the administration answered almost 1000 questions for the record.  By August, most questions seemed to have been satisfied.  The debate shifted to the administration’s commitment to fund the nuclear weapons complex, which maintains the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons.  In November, the White House said it would add $5 billion to the $80 billion already pledged for the complex over the next decade.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some in the Republican leadership viewed the ratification process as a political battle with the White House, particularly when the administration pressed for ratification during the lame duck session.  They argued that more time was needed to study the treaty—despite the treaty having been available for eight months and subject to 20-plus Senate hearings—and offered proposals to amend the treaty which would have required reopening negotiations with Russia.  Those amendments were voted down.  In the end, 13 Republican Senators decided that the national security arguments supporting the treaty were compelling and voted to ratify.

With the Senate vote in, the Russian Duma still needs to act.  No one anticipates a contentious debate there.  New START should soon enter into force, which will reinstitute the kinds of verification measures—including data exchanges and on-site inspections—that lapsed when START I expired in 2009.  The sides will also begin to implement New START’s reductions, which must be implemented within seven years.

President Obama wants follow-on negotiations to lower the limits on deployed strategic forces and, for the first time, limit non-strategic and non-deployed strategic forces.  This will be a complex negotiation and take longer to complete than the 11 months that New START needed.

See for a discussion of issues that will likely arise in future negotiations.

Other issues on the arms control agenda include follow-up to the April nuclear security summit, at which some 40 countries pledged to secure their stocks of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium.  Another priority is negotiating a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty to end production of weapons-grade highly-enriched uranium and plutonium.

Yet another issue is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the United States has signed but not ratified.  A ratification attempt in 1999 failed.  Administration officials believe, however, that the case for CTBT is much stronger today.  Verification methods have advanced significantly, and the stockpile stewardship program is providing confidence that the reliability of nuclear weapons can be maintained without testing.  But most expect a CTBT ratification process would be more difficult than New START, and the White House likely will not press ahead unless and until it sees the possibility to win.

Finally, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and reversing North Korea’s nuclear program remain high priorities.  New START ratification is unlikely to cause a change of heart in either Tehran or Pyongyang, but it should bolster the U.S. ability to persuade other countries to up the pressure on those two regimes.