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Kevin Knobloch

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With the New START Treaty, Bipartisan Equals Strength

Posted: 12/14/10 11:10 PM ET

When I was serving as a legislative director in the Senate in the late 1980s, a conservative, security-minded president, who happened to be a Republican, negotiated a nuclear arms reduction treaty with our primary Cold War enemy that strengthened the security of every American.

The Senate overwhelmingly concurred with that assessment when 95 senators voted to approve the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 1988, and only five voted no. The INF Treaty led to the destruction of nearly 2,700 nuclear and conventional missiles with intermediate ranges within three years -- with, notably, the Soviet Union destroying more than twice as many as the United States.

In endorsing President Ronald Reagan's security priority so forcefully, the Senate continued an important American tradition dating back to George Washington and the Revolutionary War-era Congress -- parking partisan fervor at the cloakroom door when national security is at issue.

Make no mistake, the eight years of the Reagan presidency were a time of sharp partisan infighting in the halls of Congress. But both Democrats and Republicans understood the stakes and overwhelmingly stood by their president. That action, in turn, strengthened his hand in wrestling with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in what turned out to be the waning years of the totalitarian Soviet empire.

One of the senators supporting his Republican commander in chief was the Rocky Mountain Democrat that I served. He stood by another Republican president three years later when he joined 92 other senators from both parties (versus six who voted nay) in 1991 to approve the START I Treaty negotiated by President George H.W. Bush. Backing for the 2002 Moscow Treaty signed by President George W. Bush was unanimous, passing 95 to 0.

It was appropriate, then, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September approved the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty negotiated by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev with a bipartisan vote of 14 to 4. Republican Senators Richard Lugar of Indiana, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, and Bob Corker of Tennessee joined 11 Democrats in voting yes.

The full Senate should take up and approve the treaty during the end-of-year session, now that the midterm elections have happened. That would ensure that the "lame duck" session is not lame at all, but in fact historic, patriotic and smart -- and a timely demonstration of how a divided government can still address real threats.

Here are several reasons why swiftly adopting this treaty will enhance the security of all Americans, and by extension, the world:

  • The danger posed by Russia's nuclear arsenal is no longer primarily that of a deliberate attack but of an unauthorized or accidental launch of one or more nuclear weapons. A number of steps can be taken to lessen that risk, such as taking both of our nations' missiles off hair-trigger alert, but reducing the number of nuclear warheads and delivery systems smartly lessens the overall probability of such a deadly catastrophe.
  • Ronald Reagan famously said of the Soviet enemy: "Trust but verify." Our ability to directly inspect Russia's nuclear arsenal and sites ended when the START I treaty expired on December 2009. New START allows us to verify Russia's actions with "boots on the ground." Failure to ratify leaves U.S. commanders flying blind.
  • In responsibly cutting back our Cold War-sized nuclear arsenal, we gain credibility and leverage internationally as we insist that countries such as Iran and North Korea end aggressive quests to build their own nuclear arsenals. By standing together, the Senate will strengthen the president's hand in negotiating with these and other countries across a range of problems that affect our security. Our nemeses are far more likely to respect a country that is backed with unified resolve than one with a divided government.
  • By cementing the U.S.-Russia partnership in reducing threats from nuclear weapons, the successful ratification of New START will make Russia more willing to collaborate in ensuring that terrorists cannot acquire such weapons or the fissile materials needed to make them.
  • Continuing to ratchet down Cold War-level arsenals will help prevent an unwelcome, destabilizing and expensive nuclear arms race with China. China has been restrained in its nuclear weapons program to date, maintaining some 200 or so nuclear warheads, fewer than half of which are believed to be on delivery vehicles that can reach the United States. This would compare with our 1,550 nuclear warheads after New START is implemented. But Beijing will likely choose a more aggressive course if we insist on maintaining a large nuclear capacity aimed at China's heartland. A fully implemented New START, alternatively, puts diplomatic pressure on China to join the United States and Russia in working towards nuclear reductions.

After the Foreign Relations Committee vote, Senator Lugar said: "This treaty is essential for our own security." He is joined in that view by our most senior military and diplomatic leaders in both parties, including those who have overseen our national security for three decades.

After 21 hearings, senators have before them an overwhelming case that the reductions made under New START would make us a more secure nation. And as I witnessed firsthand working in Congress during the height of the Cold War, they would be honoring a noble tradition that elevates national security over partisan politics, making America stronger still.

Kevin Knobloch is president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, kknobloch@ucsusa.org.