New START, or Starting Over

08/06/2010 01:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • William Hartung Director, Arms and Security Project, Center for International Policy

This week, as we commemorate the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, our Senators are considering how to vote on the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between United States and Russia (New START). The vote could occur as early as next month. The two issues are linked: without New START, it will be difficult to make further progress on the goal of a world without nuclear weapons that has been sought by citizens and political leaders alike ever since the bomb was first dropped.

Among the presidents who have pledged to seek a nuclear weapons-free world are John F. Kennedy, who spoke of nuclear weapons as a "sword of Damocles" hanging over humanity (as noted in the new film Countdown to Zero); Ronald Reagan, who said that "my dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the earth."; and Barack Obama, who gave a speech in Prague in April of 2009 in which he called for "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

What became of these fine words? More than you might think.

President Kennedy pursued and signed a ban on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. President Reagan worked with the Soviet Union to remove intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe. And President Obama has signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia (New START) that now awaits ratification by the Senate.

New START will make us safer by reducing U.S. and Russian arsenals by about one-third -- to 1,550 strategic warheads each. It will also establish an extensive system of verification that will ensure compliance with the treaty. Without the treaty, there will be no verification system. As a result, we will have much less insight into what Russia is doing in the nuclear sphere, as noted in a recent letter signed by seven former commanders of the Strategic Air Command and the U.S. Strategic Command.

START is a modest step, but it is critical if we are to make further progress towards eliminating the dangers posed by the world's 20,000-plus nuclear weapons. Without New START, it will be much more difficult to seek even deeper U.S.-Russian nuclear cuts, or to address the threats posed by each side's short-range, tactical nuclear weapons. It will be harder to move towards a ban on all nuclear testing, or to persuade other nations to reduce their own arsenals.

Given how long nuclear weapons have been with us, it is hard to blame those who fear that this problem cannot be solved. But a closer reading of the history of nuclear weapons suggests otherwise. Total worldwide stockpiles of nuclear weapons are less than one-third of their peak levels of over 70,000 reached in the mid-1980s; since the end of the Cold War, more than twice as many countries have abandoned nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons programs as have started them; and the United States and Russia have dismantled thousands of nuclear warheads and nuclear delivery vehicles, and secured bomb-making materials against theft or diversion to terrorists or rogue regimes.

These examples are not meant to understate the hard work that is yet to be done. But they do show that progress is possible.

Whether nuclear weapons are to be dramatically reduced to more manageable levels or eliminated altogether, the New START agreement is a crucial building block. That's why it has been endorsed by an impressive array of former diplomats and national security officials, including former Republican Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, and Colin Powell, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, and former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. The agreement deserves bipartisan support in the Senate, and that will require everyone who cares about this issue to contact their Senators in the next six weeks, when input can make a difference. Women's Action for New Directions (WAND), one of many groups working on this issue, has an excellent page on their web site telling you how to take action on New START.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation.