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Rhianna Tyson Kreger

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START-ing a New Security

Posted: 12/23/10 04:00 PM ET

If you witnessed a lot of hubbub in Dupont Circle pubs last night, it's a good chance it was the celebrations of my passionate arms control friends and colleagues, relishing the victory that was yesterday's Senate ratification of the START Treaty with Russia.

Indeed, the new agreement which limits both countries' arsenals to no more than 1,550 deployed warheads is an important step in President Obama's "Prague Agenda," a roadmap towards his vision of a nuclear weapon-free world (a vision he shared, by the way, with President Reagan and countless former cabinet members like Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, William Perry, Colin Powell... you get the idea). Ironically, however, in the focused frenzy to secure this step, we may have dug potholes along the Road to Prague.

Nuclear disarmament, after all, is not a zero-sum game. Its not just about getting rid of a certain type of weapon that is arguably genocidal, ecocidal and suicidal. Disarmament is a process, not an occurrence, a confidence-building project to build the legal, technical and political infrastructure that will comprise a truly cooperative security regime. This is what Prague was about.

But in the fight for START, its detractors distorted the debate. This modest arms reduction treaty -- and it is modest; 1,550 warheads can still blow up the planet, many times over--has been framed by them not as a part of the disarmament process and infrastructure that make us all safer, now, but instead as another means by which to sustain military dominance through our nuclear arsenal. The last arguments from some START supporters had conceded the opposition's objectives: from agreeing to bloated nuclear "modernization" budgets to assurances for ill-advised missile defense systems, START, some proponents argued, will not stand in the way of these cornerstones of militarism and dominance. The point goes to our team, but the game may have gone to Kyl's.

Politics is the art of the possible, I'm told, and unsavory compromises are part and parcel of Getting Things Done in Washington. But if the purpose of START wasn't just START itself, but rather a re-start of a process towards a cooperative security regime, does today's ratification fulfill the intended purpose? How will the Duma -- the Russian house of parliament charged with ratifying treaties -- react, having followed the American debate and the assurances that the US will plough ahead with missile defense systems? What will be the effect of the "modernization" budget, which promises an unjustifiable $85 billion for new warheads, on the quest to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? What we thought were compromises for START may in the end prove to have compromised the real agenda.

Or not. The hugely important verification systems that START will maintain are indeed helping to build the cooperative infrastructure that a verified nuclear weapons-free world will require. Cooperating on these mutual verification checks will build trust between the US and Russia and could portend effective cooperation on other security challenges, such as nuclear terrorism or Iran. Ratifying START also demonstrates that, despite our growing political polarization, we can still muster bipartisan cooperation on the most important matters of security, just as we've always done on issues of arms control. So for now let us all agree to shelve these misgivings and fortify our commitment to advancing security-enhancing disarmament, and raise a glass in solidarity with our DC colleagues: here's to the START of renewed momentum on the Road to Prague.