A New START for Arms Control

The successor agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is a major step forward for U.S. national security, write Max Bergmann and Samuel Charap.

President Barack Obama listens as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks during a joint press conference following the signing of the Joint Understanding for the START Follow-on Treaty in Moscow last July. (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
President Barack Obama listens as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks during a joint press conference following the signing of the Joint Understanding for the START Follow-on Treaty in Moscow last July. (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

The agreement between the United States and Russia on a successor to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, marks a historic achievement that will increase the safety and security of the United States and our allies. This new treaty reduces the threat of nuclear war and marks a significant step in advancing President Barack Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons. It also shows that the Obama administration’s policy of constructive engagement with Russia is working.

Two decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia still possess more than 20,000 nuclear weapons—95 percent of the world’s total. It is past time that the two countries reduce their nuclear arsenals and move beyond the outdated strategic approaches of the 20th century. This new treaty is intended to move the United States and Russia further along this path, one that the original START created after being initiated and advanced by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. According to published reports, the follow-on agreement would oblige each side to cut deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 from the 2,200 now allowed, and slash the number of launchers to 800 from the currently permitted 1600 within seven years. The deal would cap nuclear-armed missiles and heavy bombers at 700 each. It will also ensure that the previous START treaty’s verification framework is maintained well into the future.

President Obama has declared that ridding the world of nuclear weapons is a strategic U.S. foreign policy goal. He said in his landmark speech in Prague that, “Today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change.”

The START follow-on makes concrete progress toward that end and lays the groundwork for the United States and Russia to begin additional negotiations to hammer out an even more far-reaching agreement. It also demonstrates U.S. commitment to upholding the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the global nonproliferation regime, and does so at a key moment. President Obama will convene a conference on nuclear security in Washington in mid-April, and the next month the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference commences in New York.

The Senate should take rapid action to ratify the treaty once it is signed in early April. The agreement continues the legacy of Ronald Reagan and has tremendous bipartisan support from leading foreign policy officials such as Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Sam Nunn, and Bill Perry. That has not stopped some conservatives from declaring opposition to any deal with Russia. But partisanship should not hold our security hostage, and failure to ratify this treaty would have disastrous consequences for the United States.

The treaty also demonstrates the remarkable improvement in U.S.-Russia relations that has taken place since President Obama’s inauguration. Just 18 months ago, ties were at their post-Cold War nadir. Thanks to the administration’s decision to “press the reset button” on U.S.-Russia relations and engage Moscow on a range of shared concerns, a degree of trust has been restored, and this key relationship is now on a productive footing. And engagement has raised the prospects for future cooperation between Washington and Moscow, both on arms control and the vast array of other issues on the bilateral agenda, ranging from stabilizing Afghanistan to deepening trade.

Max Bergmann is a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Policy Analyst and Samuel Charap is Associate Director for Russia and Eurasia at the Center for American Progress.

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Max Bergmann

Former Senior Fellow