The U.S.-Russian arms treaty may not be big news, but it's good news.

Military analysis.
March 27 2010 7:24 AM

Agreeing To Agree

The U.S.-Russian arms treaty may not be big news, but it's good news.

(Continued from Page 1)

Some Republicans were hoping they'd find an objection over the issue of missile defense. A couple months ago, negotiations hit a snag over just this issue. Until this week, the Russians were insisting that the treaty include a "joint statement" that would place restrictions on the U.S. missile-defense program. This language would have killed the treaty in the Senate, where the program is popular—or where, in any case, enough Republicans, and perhaps a few Democrats, would have used the language as an excuse to kill the treaty.

According to a senior White House official, Obama told Medvedev, in a fairly tense phone conversation, that he would not sign the treaty if the Russians didn't drop their position. Finally, after some pestering, the Russians dropped their position—completely.

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Why is not entirely clear. Perhaps multiple briefings by U.S. defense officials finally convinced them that, even if the missile-defense program worked, it would have no capability to shoot down Russia's ICBMs—and thus no impact on the Russian-American nuclear balance.

In the end, according to a White House official, the Russians may tack on a unilateral statement, as a prologue to the treaty, noting that a relationship exists between offensive and defensive weapons and that, if U.S. missile defenses expand to the point where they threaten Russia's deterrent, then Russia reserves the right to withdraw from the treaty. However, since Russia reserves the right to withdraw for any reason at any time (as is the case with all parties to all such treaties), this caveat has no real significance.

The bottom line: Republicans looking for an excuse to vote down this treaty—to go on record as blocking the mutual reduction of nuclear weapons in an era when nobody thinks the Russians are about to pull the trigger—will have a very hard time.

The fourth issue: Will this treaty help Obama move a step closer to his ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons?

Obama and his aides often cite Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which states that each nation already possessing nuclear weapons "undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear-arms race … and to nuclear disarmament." The argument is that other countries can't be expected to abide by the treaty and not pursue nuclear weapons, if the major powers can't keep up their end of the bargain and abide by Article 6.

The new START accord certainly shows a "good faith" effort toward U.S.-Russian disarmament. It is unlikely, however, that other nuclear-wannabes, such as Iran or North Korea, will relax their own ambitions as a result.

Obama may be trying to "delegitimize" nuclear weapons, to put forth the word that they have no political or military utility. But history suggests that a pocketful of nukes can be very useful indeed. They build prestige. They can deter larger countries from attacking you. They can intimidate neighbors and make those neighbors' allies reluctant to respond to your aggression. (If nukes really were so useless, these countries might be asking, why are all these big nations so alarmed by the prospect of an Iranian bomb?)

Still, Obama's thinking isn't naive. The quick succession of the new START agreement and the 40-nation non-proliferation conference might affect the attitudes and actions of other countries around the world. Those leaders, who have an interest in quashing the dreams of the nuclear wannabes, might be more willing to exert their leverage, impose sanctions, or take whatever actions they can—if they see that the big powers are serious.

It's a big if. But it's a fair bet that if the United States and Russia went along their old way, and did nothing to cut their own nuclear arms, it would be much harder to get anyone to take such high-minded sentiments and pressures seriously.

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