In Win For Obama, New START Clears Senate

President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, pose with the signed New START documents. i i

hide captionPresident Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, hold up their copies of the New START documents at the April signing ceremony at Prague Castle in the Czech capital.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, pose with the signed New START documents.

President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, hold up their copies of the New START documents at the April signing ceremony at Prague Castle in the Czech capital.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

The next nuclear arms treaty will be even harder.

After months of debate and delay, the Obama administration Wednesday secured the two-thirds majority vote in the Senate necessary to ratify the New START arms reduction agreement with Russia.

In a news conference, President Obama said the treaty will cut the numbers of nuclear weapons and missiles and allow U.S. inspectors "back on the ground" in Russia. Obama said the treaty means the U.S. will be able to "trust but verify" and will "continue to advance our relationship with Russia."

But any further talks between the two countries will take up issues that are more complicated and difficult to resolve than those addressed by New START, including tactical nuclear weapons and direct limits on U.S. missile defense ambitions.

The vote to ratify New START, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, was 71-26.

At A Glance: New START

— Senate approves New START by vote of 71-26

— Treaty will reduce long-range strategic nuclear weapons of U.S., Russia

— Political victory for Obama after weeks of GOP objections

— GOP leaders sought to postpone vote until new Senate takes office next month

— Russia's Duma could approve treaty by year's end

Obama said the "strong bipartisan vote in the Senate sends a powerful signal to the world that Republicans and Democrats stand together on behalf of our security."

Thirteen Republicans broke with the party's leaders and joined 56 Democrats and two independents.

That's a big bipartisan win by contemporary congressional standards. It's a pretty weak showing, however, in comparison with earlier arms control treaties — all of which enjoyed support from the minority leadership, which New START did not.

Reflecting the new political reality, Democratic Sen. John Kerry, an advocate for ratification, told reporters: "I would say to you that in today's Washington, in today's Senate, 70 votes is yesterday's 95."

Makes Further Talks Possible

Senate approval does make future talks and further reductions possible. Obama administration officials had warned that rejection of the treaty would sour relations with Russia and make nonproliferation efforts aimed at countries such as Iran and North Korea — as well as terrorists — far more difficult.

Now, while they will have renewed political license to proceed, arms control negotiators face a daunting task that will take a much longer time to achieve than New START has done.

"If you want to make deep cuts in nuclear weapons, there have to be understandings reached on issues such as conventional forces and shorter-range missiles," says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit foundation that supports nuclear disarmament.

"That's why these talks are going to be so tough," he says. "The informal goal is to have a treaty ratified by 2015."

What New START Accomplishes

New START will limit the number of delivery vehicles and launchers the U.S. and Russia can deploy. Following its ratification by the Russian Duma, which is expected to take place early next year, each country will have seven years to bring down the total number of strategic weapons it has in place to 1,550.

That's down from current caps of 1,700 to 2,200 apiece. And, more important, the treaty will reopen the doors to inspectors checking on matters within the other nation.

"More than a year has passed since the last START inspector left Russian soil," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted in a letter to the Senate on Monday. "Without the inspections ... our understanding of Russia's nuclear posture will continue to erode."

Treaty supporters had warned that failure to ratify New START would set back relations with Russia, while also making it more difficult to persuade other countries to reduce their stockpiles — or participate in sanctions or other efforts to keep yet more countries from developing nuclear capabilities.

Already A Help

Now, ratification may lend renewed momentum to nonproliferation efforts.

"It's going to be a demonstration that Russia and the U.S. are both committed to reducing nuclear arms," says Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institution. "And that gives the Obama administration's efforts to reduce proliferation moral authority."

Pifer notes that the fact that the U.S. and Russia signed the treaty in April has already helped. An international review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty takes place every five years. The one in 2005 was a dud, he says, but the review that occurred this past spring went more smoothly, with the U.S. winning international agreement on criticism of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"The toughest sanctions ever imposed on Iran happened after the New START treaty was signed," says Cirincione, the Ploughshares Fund president. "It's not a coincidence most of this cooperation has occurred since the United States and Russia began talking and signed the treaty this year."

Next Steps Are Harder

Even arms control advocates concede that the next steps will be harder. The Obama administration has stated publicly that it will want to see limitations on tactical nuclear weapons — those with shorter ranges — addressed in the next round of talks.

That would be unprecedented, and a tough sell in Russia.

"The Russians hold a substantial numerical advantage and rely on tactical nuclear weapons to offset perceived conventional imbalances vis-a-vis NATO to the West and China to the East," Pifer notes in a recent report laying out potential arms control goals for the U.S. following New START.

There's also talk of the two countries limiting their total number of strategic weapons. Each possesses stockpiles several times larger than the numbers it has actively deployed.

Clamping down on the arsenals in total would mean addressing a much broader range of complicated issues than limiting strategic weapons alone.

The Fight At Home

Russia is also likely to push for specific limitations on U.S. missile defense systems — a traditional Russian bugaboo. But any such language would most likely be a dead letter in the Senate.

Nonbinding language regarding missile defense and a unilateral threat from Russia to withdraw from New START if it doesn't like what the U.S. is doing on defense were at the center of Republican objections to the current treaty.

"It is hard to understand how START, which is really old-style arms control, has got much life left in it," says Henry Sokolski, a former arms control official under President George H.W. Bush. "This is the end of the line for its kind. It's the last Studebaker to come off the line."

Still, even Sokolski, who is now executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and thinks his fellow Republicans were unfairly "portrayed as Neanderthals" in the New START debate, concedes that the treaty's passage may prompt both political parties in the U.S. to come up with new strategies to address nuclear weapons.

"This may prod Republicans to come up with a more coherent counteragenda, which is not a bad thing," Sokolski says. "We have not had enough debate in this field."

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