THE BLOG
12/20/2010 12:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A New START for the Russian Reset

No matter what part of the political spectrum you look at him from, President Obama has had his ups and downs. Liberals are frustrated by slow progress and broken promises, independents dither over the merits of the health care law, and conservatives are angry about pretty much everything. But regardless of your political orientation, one area in which the president has been quietly -- and astonishingly -- successful is Russian relations.

With the official pressing of the "reset" button early in Obama's term, relations between the two nations got off to a promising (if embarrassing, when the button proved to contain a mistranslation) start. Back then, "promising start" meant that hopefully Obama would be able to visit the surrounding former Soviet republics without being accused of attempting to subvert Russian diplomacy and that the number of books published titled The New Cold War would start to decline. What actually happened has been nothing short of amazing; from post-Cold War lows, Russia, the United States, and NATO have reached unprecedented levels of cooperation in spheres ranging from nuclear technology to sanctions on Iran to missile defense. This wildly successful and badly needed reset now hangs by a thread thanks to Republican grandstanding and partisan gridlock in the Senate: if the New START nuclear disarmament treaty is not ratified, expect all this progress to backslide faster than your average Republican threatens to filibuster.

The New START treaty is the crown jewel of Obama's Russian reset, the culmination of over a year of negotiations to replace the 1991 START I treaty, which expired in December 2009. By diplomatic standards, the negotiations were a runaway success. Obama succeeded in producing a document which extended important parts of previous arms reductions treaties like mutual weapons inspections, produced the most comprehensive nuclear weapons cuts ever agreed to (although 1500 warheads per country still seems like a lot to your average Joe), and even secured the right of the U.S. to continue developing a missile defense system, which was the negotiations' major stumbling block. New START was signed by presidents Obama and Medvedev on April 8, 2010.

Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have decided that partisan bickering is more important than national security or foreign relations, and it now looks as though Obama and the Democrats are facing an uphill battle to secure the 67 votes needed to ratify the treaty during the last days of the 111th Congress. The two highest ranking Republicans, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Kyl of Arizona have announced their opposition to the treaty, with the announcement coming as an additional blow because Kyl was the Republican point person on New START. With the clock ticking and Harry Reid scrambling, the future of New START, and consequently of the Russian reset, is in serious jeopardy.

New START absolutely must pass before the 111th Congress adjourns. As the focal point of relations with Russia under the Obama administration, the treaty represents a test of Obama's credibility. Should the treaty fail to pass, the Russian government would lose trust in their American counterparts; after all, if our government cannot even be counted on to follow through on this central diplomatic effort, why should it be trusted on anything else? Defeat of New START by the Senate would also make President Obama look weak in the eyes of the Russians, and although diminishing his stature at home is a favorite Republican pastime, we as a nation, not as Republicans or Democrats, are only harmed if he is seen as powerless abroad. Russian President Medvedev confirmed as much when he warned of a new arms race last month, saying, "If we fail to reach a constructive agreement, a new round of the arms race will start and we shall have to take decisions on the deployment of new strike equipment."

What's more, New START would restore bilateral inspections of weapons facilities, which ended when the old treaty expired last December. For the past year, we have been unable to independently verify Russia's nuclear arsenal for the first time since the Cold War. Any right-thinking individual, regardless of party orientation, should be more than happy to vote for a well-negotiated, unobjectionable treaty when the alternative is a throwback to the 1960s and a low likelihood of the Russians ever cooperating with us again.

That cooperation has proven immensely important for America over the past two years. President Obama successfully convinced the U.N. Security Council to pass comprehensive sanctions on Iran that Bush could only dream of, thanks primarily due to his ability to negotiate with the Russian delegation, which had been previously unwilling to support harsher sanctions. Just last month, NATO announced plans to include Russia in the U.S.-led European missile defense shield which has been the bloc's greatest problem over the past two years. Russia watchers around the world, myself included, collapsed in hysterics; their government has shown itself more likely to point nuclear missiles at NATO allies over the shield than to cooperate in it. Laughter turned to shock and disbelief when -- amazingly -- Russia actually agreed to the plan! A more complete reversal of policy can scarcely be imagined. These successes, along with others like a plan for nuclear technology cooperation, are entirely due to Obama's diplomatic reset. They will be entirely impossible to build on if Senate Republicans succeed in derailing New START and derailing Russian-American relations.

The Republican objections to New START are even less understandable since they can't point to a coherent, policy-based reason to oppose it. Some Republicans, like Mitt Romney and John McCain, claim that the treaty would circumscribe the ability of the United States to develop missile defense technology. This argument fails spectacularly because allowing missile-defense development was actually one of the major successes of the treaty. In attempting to make his case, McCain points to a line in the preamble specifically designated as nonbinding, which says the two sides recognize "the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms" and "this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced." McCain's objection:

"Words matter," Mr. McCain said. "To open ourselves up to this type of political threat by accepting an outdated interrelationship between nuclear weapons and missile defense is wrong."

Yes, the Senate Republicans have been reduced to attempting to block New START because they don't understand how nuclear missiles and nuclear missile defense are related to each other. As usual, their real objective is to frantically prevent from passing any legislation which might reflect positively upon Obama or the Democrats. But when that obstructionism blocks a good, comprehensive treaty and imperils national security and foreign relations, it's time to reach across the aisle. Or, as Harry Reid put it when he moved for a vote, "You either want to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists or you don't."