October 1st marks 18 years since the U.S. Senate approved President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START. It also marks the 300th day since that treaty expired, cutting off U.S. weapons inspectors' access to Russian nuclear sites. Conservatives in the Senate are now blocking the restart of Reagan's inspections.
In order to get U.S. inspectors back "looking under the hood" of Russian nuclear weapons, as one military official put it, the Senate must approve the New Start treaty negotiated and signed by the U.S. and Russia. Without this treaty, Reagan's plan for a steady decrease of nuclear arsenals verified by rigorous inspections will fade.
Much has changed in the world since Reagan was president, but nuclear threats remain. Together, the U.S. and Russia hold 96 percent of the world's estimated 22,500 nuclear weapons. The explosion of just one in a major city -- by accident, miscalculation or madness -- would be a disaster.
Ronald Reagan wanted to eliminate all nuclear weapons. "For the eight years I was President," he said in his memoirs, "I never let my dream of a nuclear-free world fade from my mind."
He couldn't get there, but he did begin the process of reducing U.S. and Russian arsenals. On October 1, 1992, the Senate ratified his START I treaty. The agreement cut U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear weapons by 30 percent. Keeping with Reagan's "trust but verify" mantra, it established for the first time a system of mutual and rigorous nuclear weapons inspections.
The vote to approve the treaty was 93-6. Amidst the chaos and uncertainty of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Senate managed to overcome partisanship and vote overwhelmingly in favor of bolstering American security.
But that treaty expired in December of 2009. All inspections stopped. It has been 300 days, as of October 1st, since U.S. inspectors were at Russian nuclear sites and since Russian inspectors were at U.S. sites. "Without New Start," warned Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander for U.S. Strategic Forces, "We would rapidly lose insight into Russian strategic nuclear force developments and activities." Uncertainty leads to instability and instability leads to miscalculation, which could lead to catastrophe.
Reagan understood this in a way that some leading conservative Senators do not. Shortly after the Soviets suspended talks on START negotiations, Reagan said, "my goal is the total elimination of nuclear weapons. If we can get those fellows back to the table and get them to start down that road of mutual reduction, then they might find out what common sense it would mean to eliminate them."
Some Senators, including a number who were around to vote in favor of the first START treaty, have forgotten Ronald Reagan's legacy of responsible threat reduction. New START is not a radical shift in U.S. security policy. The new treaty places the same inspectors back into Russia to continue the vital work that Reagan tasked them with years ago. It cuts deployed long-range forces by 30 percent, as did Reagan's treaty, but still leaves both nations with more than enough weapons for any conceivable military contingency. It is a modest step towards Reagan's ultimate goal.
Outside the Senate, the treaty has overwhelming bipartisan support from experts and former officials from every administration since Richard Nixon's. And when the rubber meets the road, when Senators are allowed to actually vote on the treaty, it has that support in the Senate as well.
On September 16th, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 14-4 in favor of the New START treaty. Three Republicans backed the treaty, making support for New Start more bipartisan than most other major pieces of legislation considered by the Senate this year, including defense authorization, financial reform, healthcare reform, and small business tax relief. Ratification of New START nonetheless remains uncertain, as the Senate has tabled the vote before the impending midterm elections.
Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) is leading the charge to kill the treaty, while Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) is delaying any vote until he can get more money for his favored weapons programs.
We need Reagan's inspectors back on the job. We need to have New START placed at the top of the agenda for the Senate to approve when it reconvenes after the November election. The Senate should respect Reagan's legacy and pass this vital national security treaty.