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The Costs of Conservative Recalcitrance

Failure to Ratify New START Accord Would Have Serious Consequences

SOURCE: AP/Charles Dharapak

Sen. Jon Kyl has called New START “benign” and has focused his opposition around a supposed need to increase funding for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. To placate Kyl’s demands, the Obama administration is now offering to spend an additional $5 billion. Yet ratification may still be held up by obstructionist Senate Republicans while U.S. national security interests hang in the balance.

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Failure to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, would have very serious consequences for our own national security and our European allies’ security, too. The New START accord is only a modest extension of America’s decades-long commitment to nuclear arms reductions, but the implications of failure go well beyond nuclear nonproliferation. Failure to ratify the accord would jeopardize important security gains achieved over the last two years while renewing questions about American capacity for global leadership. If conservative Republican senators block New START, they would be responsible for making the United States and the world considerably less safe.

In fact, the substantive debate over New START is over for all but the most ideological opponents of nuclear arms reductions. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee provided a rare moment of bipartisan agreement when it approved the treaty 14-4 in September. The entire U.S. military supports the treaty, including the head of the Missile Defense Agency. Five former secretaries of defense and six former secretaries of state from both parties have urged ratification. NATO unanimously favors ratification with the strongest support coming from Eastern European countries that live in Russia’s shadow.

Even the Senate Republicans’ point man, Sen. Jon Kyl, has called New START “benign” and has focused his opposition around a supposed need to increase funding for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. The Obama administration has pledged a major increase in funds to America’s nuclear weapons laboratories. The directors of the nuclear labs are “very pleased” with the funding proposal, the largest since the end of the Cold War. To placate Kyl’s demands, the Obama administration is now offering to spend an additional $5 billion.

Yet ratification may still be held up by obstructionist Senate Republicans while U.S. national security interests hang in the balance.

Failure to ratify New START would permanently end the now-suspended U.S. inspection and verification of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Defeat of this treaty dealing with strategic nuclear weapons would end any prospect of obtaining an additional agreement with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons—an area in which they have a numerical superiority. Derailing New START would severely destabilize nuclear stability and end any prospect of a collaborative rather than confrontational arrangement with Russia on missile defense.

The reset in U.S.-Russia relations ushered in by the Obama administration now provides tangible security benefits to the United States and our European allies well beyond New START. Russia now assists U.S. logistical operations supplying forces in Afghanistan. Russia backs the tough new sanctions on Iran, and revoked a deal to provide the Iranian regime with advanced air defense systems. The added pressure on Iran by Russia’s surprisingly strong support for international efforts to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons helped force them back to the negotiating table this month.

If the United States cannot deliver the modest reductions to its nuclear arsenal called for by New START, the international nonproliferation effort will suffer serious damage, hampering efforts not only in Iran, but also North Korea. Ambassador Richard Burt, a Reagan administration State Department official and lead negotiator for the original START agreement, recently said “there are only two governments in the world that wouldn’t like to see this treaty ratified, the government in Tehran and the government in North Korea.”

Europe has witnessed an important reversal from the post-Cold War nadir of Russian-European relations in 2007-08. That period was marked by resumed Russian strategic nuclear bomber patrols off the Norwegian coast, gas supply cut-offs to Europe, cyber-attacks, furious anti-Western speeches, and a shooting war between Russia and Georgia. The turnaround has been stark as Russia now emphasizes cooperation rather than confrontation with Europe and the West, epitomized by a historic rapprochement with Poland and a 2010 call from President Dmitry Medvedev to modernize alliances with Europe and the United States.

The shift toward a more peaceful and stable base of relations between the United States and Russia, and between Europe and Russia, would likely evaporate should the Senate kill New START.

If the U.S. Senate cannot ratify a treaty that is clearly in the U.S. national interest and boasts bipartisan support from nearly a dozen former secretaries of defense and state, the entire military leadership, and all of our European allies, it will add to the growing chorus questioning America’s capacity for global leadership. The French ambassador to Washington recently remarked that when he and his fellow ambassadors sent word home that New START might be in trouble, the response was, “Have you been drinking?”

Sen. Kyl and his Republican colleagues have a clear choice on New START. They can choose to join the U.S. military, the heads of the nuclear weapons laboratories, the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, and all our European allies in a policy that restricts the spread of nuclear weapons and strengthens the United States. Or they could side with regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang, open the door to nuclear weapons proliferation, and weaken America and its global leadership position.

This shouldn’t be a difficult choice.

Ken Gude is the Managing Director of National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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