11/18/2010 12:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Way Forward for Nuclear Arms Control

The Obama administration and a broad coalition of national security experts believe that ratification of the New START treaty, signed last April between the United States and Russia, would be an essential stepping stone toward their goals of deep nuclear force reductions and global nuclear disarmament. But the administration should be careful about placing too much weight on this "stepping stone" argument as it seeks to win ratification during a lame-duck session of Congress. Even if New START is ratified before the Democrats' Senate majority significantly shrinks, it will not help advance advocates' long-term goals unless a lost consensus on arms control fundamentals is rebuilt first, particularly around the principle of verification of arms reductions.

President Ronald Reagan famously noted that the basis of successful arms control is "trust, but verify." Yet, uncertainty about the nature of post-Cold War U.S.-Russian relations has helped to undermine the Reagan-era consensus on this point.

During the past decade, opposition to verification has alternately been justified on the basis that our relationship with Russia no longer requires it (as was the case with the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty), and on fears that verification is necessary but incapable of detecting Russian cheating (as is the case with New START). The mutually exclusive nature of these arguments suggests that verification opposition has taken on pathological qualities.

This verification pathology is problematic for those who support deep nuclear force reductions because verification is the bedrock of safe reductions. Eschewing verification as we scale down our arsenal is equivalent to playing nuclear Russian roulette with our national security.

That is why New START renews and refines mutual verification. And it is why lead U.S. negotiator Rose Gottemoeller compellingly argues that New START's verification provisions are among the agreement's most important elements.

Absent a strong national consensus on verification, shifting political and strategic contexts will place enormous strain on all future arms control agreements. In 2001, such shifts helped convince President George W. Bush to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Similarly, the 1991 START Treaty, which was negotiated by Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and overwhelmingly ratified by the Senate, lost enough support by December 2009 that it was allowed to expire. With it went the existing framework for mutual nuclear arms verification between the U.S. and Russia.

Reestablishing this mutual verification is critical to U.S. national security.

One reason for this is that verification inspections provide us with critical intelligence that would otherwise have been shrouded in mystery. It is much easier to protect U.S. national interests when such information is out in the open.

Moreover, while verification is not a guarantee of perfect behavior, it need not be so. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates has argued, "Russia will not be able to achieve militarily significant cheating or breakout under New START," in part because of its verification provisions.

Finally, while the United States must never accept constraints that endanger its national security, the constraints imposed by nuclear verifications can have far-reaching benefits for U.S. interests.

The first START treaty is instructive here. Leaving aside unproductive debates about U.S. exceptionalism, the administration of President George H.W. Bush concluded what Ronald Reagan had started, signing the agreement shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the world's sole superpower. The elder President Bush's decision reflected a recognition that the constraints of START-I could actually enhance U.S. power by providing the confidence in strategic relations with Russia that was necessary for Washington to turn its attention to emerging threats in the Middle East and East Asia.

Some of these threats remain, with Iran edging closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, and North Korea now possessing a small arsenal. Today, as before, the United States will have more resources to deal with these threats if it increases stability in bilateral relations with Russia. Verifiable arms control agreements will remain a fundamental building block of this stability now and well into the future.

As supporters and skeptics of New START recalibrate in the aftermath of the recent U.S. elections, they should work to find common ground to promote the common good. We were once united on the critical principle of verification. To help preserve the world for future generations, we must unite around it again.