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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

Today, President Obama is in Europe to sign a new arms control deal with Russia. He will do it in Prague, the same city where the president spoke one year ago of a world without nuclear weapons. This agreement requires both the United States and Russia to cut their strategic nuclear arsenals.

MONTAGNE: In a moment, we'll ask how much this agreement will really change. We begin with how the agreement came about.

NPR's Scott Horsley is traveling with the president in Prague.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The new START agreement that President Obama and his Russian counterpart are signing today was more than a year in the making. The two leaders had hoped to have it signed last December, when the old START treaty expired. There were fits and starts before a final telephone call sealed the deal two weeks ago.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says in the end patient diplomacy produced a treaty with real results.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. State Department): It says to our country, the Cold War really is behind us and these massive nuclear arsenals that both of our countries maintained as part of deterrence no longer have to be so big. We can begin to cut that.

HORSLEY: The agreement calls for the United States and Russia to cut their long-range nuclear arsenals by about 30 percent over the next seven years. Secretary Clinton says the treaty also follows the old Russian proverb often invoked by President Reagan: Trust but verify.

Nuclear parity is particularly important to Russia, which lags the U.S. in conventional weapons. And keeping an eye on Russia is important to the U.S., says Andrew Kuchins, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Dr. ANDREW KUCHINS (Center for Strategic and International Studies): With the expiration of the START I treaty in December, it meant that you were going to lose the entire verification and monitoring regime that went along with that.

So I think for the Obama folks, being able to replace the treaty and maintain a significant degree of that verification/monitoring regime is probably the most important achievement, from the standpoint of U.S. national security, with the treaty.

HORSLEY: The U.S. and Russia still hold the vast majority of the world's nuclear weapons. Secretary Clinton says cutting those stockpiles makes it easier for the former Cold War adversaries to encourage other countries to resist a nuclear buildup.

Sec. CLINTON: The treaty also shows the world, particularly states like Iran and North Korea, that one of our top priorities is to strengthen the global nonproliferation regime and keep nuclear materials out of the wrong hands.

HORSLEY: Next week, leaders of more than 40 countries gather in Washington for a summit meeting on safeguarding nuclear material. And next month there's a meeting in New York on strengthening the 40-year-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Arms control expert Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution says the Obama administration was anxious to have this deal with the Russians signed before those talks.

Mr. STEVEN PIFER (Brookings Institution): It allows the American delegation at that review conference to say the United States is doing its part, it's cutting nuclear weapons. And now the review conference for the Nonproliferation Treaty needs to find ways to make it more difficult for other countries to get nuclear weapons.

HORSLEY: The deal also underscores the improvement in U.S. Russian relations, which had been at a low point when President Obama took office. Pifer says historically progress on arms control has led to advances in other areas with the Russians. Moscow has already given the U.S. military access to its airspace for flying lethal equipment into Afghanistan.

And Pifer says Russia is slowly moving closer to the U.S. position in favor of sanctioning Iran over its nuclear program.

Mr. PIFER: I suspect in the end the Russians are not going to go as far as Washington might like in terms of talking about and actually moving toward sanctions on Iran. But certainly they're talking about steps now that they weren't talking about a year ago. And that's good news.

HORSLEY: For all the hoopla over today's signing, the arms-control treaty still has to be ratified by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate, as well as Russia's Duma. The Obama administration has been consulting lawmakers from both parties. Officials say they hope the treaty will win broad bipartisan support.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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