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Objections to New START Don't Stand Up to Scrutiny

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Republican Senators such as Jon Kyl (AZ) and Scott Brown (MA) have been withholding support for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia. Signed by President Obama and Russian President Medvedev on April 8, the treaty has not yet been ratified by the required two-thirds majority of the U.S. Senate. Senator Kyl and others have indicated that they are concerned about potential restrictions on missile defense and modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. These are strange objections for two reasons.

First, the treaty would not prohibit modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and President Obama has already promised to support additional appropriations for such modernization on top of the already planned $80 billion, amounting to roughly $85 billion over ten years. Second, the United States could develop a missile defense system under the treaty. Moreover, the NATO-Russia Council tentatively agreed on November 21 to cooperate on a missile defense shield that would seek to protect Europe from states such as Iran and North Korea.

As George W. Bush repeatedly said, the missile defense shield was never intended to protect against Russia. Indeed, it would be ludicrous for it to try to do so because Russia could easily overwhelm a missile defense and deploying one against Russia could set off a new arms race. Thus, cooperating with Russia on missile defense is the most sensible option.

It is true that the treaty places some restrictions on missile defense, but they are minor. For example, New START would prohibit converting ICBM missile launchers so that they could be used to launch missile interceptors instead (Article V, Paragraph 3). However, the United States currently has no plans to convert ICBM launchers to interceptor launchers -- it is leaning toward a sea-based missile defense system for which ICBM launchers are irrelevant. Besides, the treaty does not prohibit construction of new launchers. Given that Republicans are worried about modernizing U.S. strategic forces, it is unclear why they are concerned about being able to reuse old launchers.

U.S.-Russian relations have improved markedly since Obama took office, and the successful negotiation of New START is no small part of that. The treaty replaces the 1991 START I, which expired at the end of 2009. START I was the first nuclear arms control agreement between the United States and Russia that allowed on-site inspections to verify treaty compliance (Article XI). Inspections augmented verification measures that had previously consisted of "national technical means of verification," such as satellite reconnaissance and radar. Since START I's expiration, on-site inspections have been suspended.

Generally, inspection and verification measures build mutual trust between parties by enhancing transparency, reducing misunderstanding, and creating a pattern of cooperative behavior. In addition to monitoring Russian nuclear arms, the on-site inspections permitted under START I were invaluable in helping the Russians secure their nuclear materials and in preventing theft by terrorists. The new treaty would allow inspections to resume, and although some Republicans criticize New START's inspection measures for not being as strong as under START I, they are a lot stronger than no inspections at all.

A few other objections to New START with regards to missile defense include the linkage between strategic offensive and defensive arms in the treaty's preamble (Paragraph 9), the creation of a Bilateral Consultative Commission (Article XII and Part Six of the Protocol), and the sharing of telemetric data, which are detailed measurements of missile launches. These objections are spurious.

First, the linkage between strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms has been accepted by international security experts since the 1960s and it was first enshrined in the 1972 ABM Treaty. Second, commissions such as the one created by New START are standard parts of treaties; moreover, since the United States would obviously be a member of the commission, no new limits could be set on missile defense without U.S. consent. Third, the requirements about the sharing of telemetric data in New START (Article IX) are significantly less demanding than in START I (Article X).

With trust and confidence between the United States and Russia growing, failing to ratify New START would needlessly harm our relationship. In addition to undermining missile defense cooperation, it would also likely reduce Russian support for efforts to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, an area where Russian assistance has been more forthcoming in the last two years.

Republican opposition to the treaty makes little sense unless you factor in political motives. Senator Kyl, Senator Brown, and other conservative senators seem to be obstructing ratification either to extract concessions from Democrats or simply to deny a political victory to the Obama administration.

New START enjoys broad bipartisan support among career diplomats, national security experts, the Pentagon, and the majority of our NATO allies. The treaty was voted out of committee on September 16, seven weeks before the current lame-duck session began. That the Senate has acted slowly on bringing New START to a full vote does not excuse it from its duty to govern; senators are elected to serve their constituents for the entirety of their terms.

Unless Republican senators can come up with better explanations for their opposition to the treaty, it will be hard for anyone to avoid assuming that they are simply playing politics on an issue of national security. They have already held out for too long.