As the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia (New START) moves towards a ratification vote in the Senate, a gaggle of right-wing hawks -- from opportunists like Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney to longstanding opponents of arms control like the Heritage Foundation -- are moblizing in an effort to kill the treaty. Even a sliver of the Tea Party movement has jumped on board, in the form of a front group called "Liberty Central."
The irresponsible elements of the Republican base are in high dudgeon about any number of sensible policy options these days, some for real, and some for symbolic reasons. But few are more consequential than the battle over New START. The treaty is critical for a host of reasons. Perhaps the most important of them is that without New START it will be hard to make deep reductions in the world's dangerous and deadly nuclear arsenals, which still hover in the range of 23,000 warheads, each of them far more powerful than the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
New START is a modest but essential step in the right direction. It will reduce the U.S. and Russia's deployed strategic nuclear warheads by one-third, to 1,550 each. It will establish an extensive and effective monitoring system to ensure that each side lives up to its commitments under the treaty. And it will signal to the rest of the world that the two nations that control roughly 95% of the world's nuclear weapons are taking real steps to reduce their arsenals. This will make it easier to persuade other nations to follow suit.
So, New START in and of itself is hardly a roadmap to the world without nuclear weapons that President Obama pledged to work towards in his historic April 2009 speech in Prague, Czech Repubic. But without it, further steps towards that goal -- from a global ban on all nuclear testing to efforts to secure all nuclear bomb-making materials -- will be far more difficult to achieve. That's why New START matters, not only in its own right, but for what it means for the future of nuclear arms reductions. And as the new film "Countdown to Zero" makes clear, the nuclear calculus may have changed since the end of the Cold War, but getting rid of nuclear weapons is as urgent a task as ever, given the dangers of warheads or bomb-making materials falling into the hands of terrorists, or even of an accidental launch of U.S. or Russian weapons that are still, even now, on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched on a few minutes notice.
Which brings us back to Romney and company. Romney's July 6th anti-START polemic in the Washington Post has been thoroughly rebutted by everyone from long-time arms control analyst Fred Kaplan of Slate to Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, who described Romney's piece as a "hyperbolic attack" that "repeats discredited objections and appears unaware of arms control history and context."
Part of the context that Lugar is referring to is the long Republican history of supporting practical arms control arrangements, from the Nixon administration's support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to Ronald Reagan's negotiation of a treaty removing nuclear weapons from Europe (the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF) to George Herbert Walker Bush's support for ratification of the first START agreement, which won by a huge bipartisan majority of 93 to 6. Perhaps most telling in this regard is the position taken by Reagan, who ultimately decided that the only way to protect us from the nuclear danger was to implement a long-term plan for eliminating nuclear weapons altogether, as he asserted in his 1984 State of the Union address: "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?" David Krieger of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has done a good summary of Reagan's record as a nuclear abolitionist that is worth reading by anyone who doubts the Gipper's commitment on this score. This history of Republican support is echoed by the impressive array of retired Republican officials who have endorsed New START, from Reagan administration Secretary of State George Shultz, to Reagan Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, to former Ford and George H.W. Bush National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, to former Ford administration Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, to former George W. Bush administration Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The fate of New START will not hinge only on who has the best arguments. It will also depend on which side does the best job of getting their constituencies -- and others recruited along the way -- to make their voices heard, both on a national scale and in key states. Among the Republican Senators who could make a difference on START -- which requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate to be ratified -- are Bob Corker of Tennessee, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, George Voinovich of Ohio, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Bennett of Utah, and John McCain of Arizona.
As noted above, the most active opponents of New START include Romney himself, who has made his anti-START campaign a centerpiece of his unannounced but virtually certain 2012 presidential bid; Heritage Action for America, an offshoot of the Heritage Foundation; and Liberty Central. Even the far right John Birch Society is devoting resources to stopping the New START agreement.
A network of pro-New START organizations that includes the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Women's Action for New Directions, the National Security Network, Peace Action, the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, the Two Futures Project, the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, the Arms Control Association, and the Union of Concerned Scientists is working to educate and activate key groups and individuals in the run-up to the vote. These organizations are being joined by a new group of retired military, national security, and foreign policy experts, the Consensus for American Security, an initiative of the American Security Project.