New START and the Moscow Treaty: A Response to Walter Pincus

Baker Spring /

Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, in his August 10 article “New START: A Similar Arms Reduction Pact but a Different Republican Reaction,” argues that Republican Senators are applying different standards for reviewing the 2002 Moscow Treaty between the U.S. and Russia for reducing strategic nuclear warheads and today’s New START, which seeks to limit offensive and defensive strategic weapons. The problem with the Pincus argument, as its title makes clear, is that it fails to account for the dramatic differences between the two treaties. Accordingly, it is essential to describe the specific ways in which the treaties differ.

First, the broader purposes behind the two treaties are miles apart. The Bush Administration was using the arms control process with Russia, including through the Moscow Treaty, to move the U.S.-Russian relationship away from one premised on mutual threats of nuclear annihilation and where the balance of nuclear terror was at the center of that relationship.

Moreover, this was a time when Russia was perceived as more cooperative. Russia has since shown that it views relations with the U.S. and its neighbors as a zero-sum game. It repeatedly violated major arms control agreements and continues to maintain close ties with terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah and “rogue states” such as Syria, Iran, and Venezuela.

The Obama Administration and New START’s supporters in the Senate have been quite open that New START is designed to preserve the “second strike,” retaliation-based deterrence policies of the Cold War, with Russia assuming the role of the former Soviet Union. It is an astounding contradiction, but a U.S. Administration that favors nuclear disarmament is seeking to bring into force an arms control treaty that defines the preservation of nuclear threats as the most important component of the bilateral relationship with Russia. The Senate, at this point, has no choice but to judge the merits and demerits of New START on this basis.

Second, New START is designed to codify strategic nuclear parity between the U.S. and Russia. The Moscow Treaty did not. Absent the specter of strategic nuclear and broader strategic parity with Russia, there is much greater room for the U.S. to maneuver and respond effectively to security challenges. This added flexibility is extremely valuable in addressing U.S. security needs in a world that is experiencing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver these weapons. New START will jettison U.S. strategic flexibility and leave virtually no margin for error.

Third, the Moscow Treaty imposed no limitations on U.S. strategic defensive and conventional strategic offensive development and deployment options. This is the feature of the Moscow Treaty that permitted greater flexibility for the U.S. in its broader strategic posture. New START limits both areas.

Fourth, the implications for U.S. security stemming from ambiguity in New START regarding U.S. missile defense options are far graver than those stemming from the term ”strategic nuclear warheads” used in the Moscow Treaty. The ambiguity regarding missile defense in New START, particularly the language found in its preamble, is one that can be exploited by Russia to the disadvantage the U.S. Further, Russia has issued a unilateral statement that effectively announces that it intends to exploit the ambiguity in just this way. The Obama Administration has exacerbated the problem by being unclear about whether it will accept Russian views regarding this language in the future. The Bush Administration’s position regarding the Moscow Treaty’s limitation pertaining to “operationally deployed” strategic nuclear warheads was crystal clear. This established the standard by which the U.S. would judge Russian compliance and there was no doubt that the Bush Administration would respond effectively to any Russian actions to apply a different standard of compliance.

Fifth, the need to modernize the U.S. nuclear complex is more urgent today than it was in the 2002–2003 timeframe, when the Moscow Treaty was signed and received Senate approval. In 2002–2003, the Bush Administration put forward a plan to maintain a responsive infrastructure to support the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal. In the intervening time, however, a minority in Congress, specifically the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water, moved to block the Bush Administration’s plan. Pincus could have made the point in his argument regarding a double standard that the Senate should have anticipated the blocking action by the House Subcommittee. For whatever reason, he chose not to do so.

Sixth, the stakes for the U.S. were lower and the terms of the agreement were simpler with the Moscow Treaty. Therefore, the depth of the Senate review could be more limited. The stakes, for the reasons described earlier, are far higher for the U.S. regarding New START. Regarding simplicity, the Moscow Treaty contained fewer than 500 words.  New START, by contrast, exceeds 68,000 words when the Protocol and Annexes are included.  learly, the Senate has compelling reasons to spend more time reviewing the implications of New START than it spent on reviewing the implications of the Moscow Treaty.

Pincus does make a valid point, however, regarding the absence of verification and transparency measures in the Moscow Treaty. This is not to say that New START’s verification provisions are adequate, particularly in the context of the central purposes of the treaty. The absence of verification and transparency measures in the Moscow Treaty stems in part from the continuation of the verification and transparency measures of the original START through early December 2009. However, given that it was and is out of Russia’s reach to exceed the Moscow Treaty’s deployed warhead limitation of 2,200 at the end of 2012 as well as the fact and that the Moscow Treaty contains no interim limitations to verify, the treaty would have been stronger if it contained such provisions at the outset. The Bush Administration later proposed such measures to Russia, but Russia chose not to accept these measures. Pincus’ valid argument here, however, also reveals that his perspective is one-sided in the comparison between Senate consideration of the Moscow Treaty and New START. His entire article levels criticism at Senate Republicans for applying careful review standards in the consideration of New START and yet, spends no time criticizing Senate Democrats for not insisting on similar standards in reviewing the Moscow Treaty.

Ultimately, Pincus’s article reveals that he believes the Senate’s most important responsibility in the consideration of arms control treaties is not to protect the security of the American people and preserve American strength, but to ensure identical technical standards are adopted. Accordingly, Pincus is of the view that the Senate needs to apply the same technical standards during its consideration of an arms control treaty that clearly favors the U.S., such as the Moscow Treaty, to other treaties, such as New START, where it is far less clear that a position of strength for the U.S. is being preserved.