The Washington Post has arrived at the conclusion, in a July 26 editorial, that the New START arms control agreement with Russia should be ratified this year. Arriving at this conclusion, however, has resulted from the Post misunderstanding important details about the treaty and failing to recognize that the Obama Administration’s general approach to arms control is seriously flawed.
Starting with the specifics, the Post asserts that New START will reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads from the levels required under the current Moscow Treaty with Russia by 30 percent. This is wrong, because while the Moscow Treaty counted real warheads, New START uses an “accountable” warhead standard that would permit both sides to exceed the Moscow Treaty limits in terms of real warheads if both sides choose to structure their forces under the treaty in certain ways.
Second, the Post acknowledges that Russia will be forced in the near-term to reduce its broader strategic nuclear arsenal regardless of the treaty. This is driven by the present state of the Russian arsenal and Russia’s economic circumstances. In making this point, however, the Post fails to recognize that all of the near-term restraints from the treaty are imposed on the U.S. and that, if fortunes change for Russia regarding the options for expanding its strategic nuclear arsenal, Russia could end up with a significantly larger force than the U.S. by the end of the 10-year life of this treaty.
Third, the editorial extols the fact that inspections will resume under New START, whereas stronger inspections under the earlier START ceased when this earlier treaty expired in December. This circumstance came about because the Obama Administration failed to deliver on its promise that New START would be completed before the expiration of the earlier START. The Post seems to think that the Obama Administration should be rewarded for its own negotiating incompetence with the ratification of New START.
Fourth, the Post asserts that New START will not limit U.S. missile defense options. This is simply wrong. New START’s preamble commits both sides to reducing missile defense capabilities as offensive strategic forces are reduced—whether under New START or in the future under additional agreements—in order to preserve “the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties.” The editorial asserts that this language is not legally binding, but the Russians think otherwise, and international law appears to favor their view. Leaving aside the debate over whether the preamble’s language is legally binding, there is no doubt that it is morally and politically binding.
Further, there is no doubt that New START limits missile defense by barring the conversion of offensive missile launchers to ones for launching missile defense interceptors and by imposing a variety of limitations on target missiles and launchers for the conduct of missile defense tests.
Finally, the editorial recognizes that New START makes sense only in the context of a modernized nuclear arsenal and nuclear weapons enterprise. This is very much the case, but the Post fails to recognize the illogic of its argument for Senator Jon Kyl (R–AZ)—a strong proponent of nuclear modernization—and the Obama Administration to conclude a deal that would permit the modernization of the nuclear arsenal and weapons enterprise in exchange for treaty ratification.
Implied in this argument is the reality that the modernization of the nuclear arsenal and weapons enterprise will not take place if New START is not ratified, because the Obama Administration would stop the modernization program if left to its own devices. Otherwise, there would be no need to have a deal in the first place. Given that the Obama Administration opposes modernization, it is difficult to see what incentives it will have to preserve the modernization program once the Senate has consented the to ratification of New START. The pressure will be off.
While the Post misreads many specifics regarding New START, what is most disappointing is that the editors fail to appreciate that the treaty is the product of the Obama Administration’s flawed approach to arms control generally. They seem to believe that this treaty will address the pressing problem of nuclear proliferation and bolster the non-proliferation regime. It does nothing of the sort.
New START is a throwback to Cold War–style arms control that was pursued with the Soviet Union. It imposes no restrictions that would directly or indirectly limit the actions of proliferating states. In fact, it takes a significant step back from the nonproliferation regime by defining it as a stepping stone toward nuclear disarmament even while the proliferating states like Iran and North Korea are advancing their nuclear programs.
Further, New START is designed to restore the primacy of the policy of nuclear vulnerability that existed during the Cold War. This invites every rogue nation seeking nuclear weapons to achieve an “assured destruction” capability toward the U.S. Thus, New START is as much a stepping stone toward the multilateralization of Cold War retaliatory or second-strike deterrence policies as toward nuclear disarmament. This contradictory approach to arms control will only serve to encourage a multilateral nuclear arms race and increase the risk that nuclear weapons will be used.