Are GOP senators right to object to our nuclear treaty with Russia?

Military analysis.
May 18 2010 6:48 PM

Hey, Senate Republicans, the Cold War Is Over

You wouldn't know it from some of the questions in today's Senate hearings.

The Senate took up ratification hearings today on the U.S.-Russian strategic arms-reduction treaty that Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev signed in April, and it soon became clear that the Republicans will oppose the treaty on the basis of a claim that isn't true—that the treaty puts limits on the Pentagon's missile-defense program.

The hearing's witnesses—Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen—repeatedly insisted that the treaty imposes no such limits and that the Obama administration (to the puzzlement of some liberal Democrats) is boosting spending on missile defense.

Yet the Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—in a likely preview of the floor debate to come—pointed to a unilateral statement that Russia tacked on to the treaty's preamble, noting that it reserves the right to withdraw from the treaty if the United States builds up its missile defenses to the point where they "give rise to a threat" to Russia's offensive "nuclear force potential."

What does this statement mean? The New START treaty, as the accord is called, requires each side to reduce its strategic nuclear arsenal to no more than 1,550 warheads. The main purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter an attack by the other side, mainly through the threat of nuclear retaliation—"mutual assured destruction," as some called it in the 1960s: You destroy us; we destroy you back.

But if both sides reduce their offensive nuclear weapons, and if the United States builds up its defensive weapons, Russian strategists might fear that Washington was amassing a "first-strike capability." That is, the United States could launch a first strike on Russia's missile silos and bomber bases—and when Russia strikes back with its surviving missiles, U.S. missile defenses will shoot them down. Thus, missile defenses can destroy the other side's ability to deter a nuclear attack.

The scenario sounds—and is—insane. (A few reasons: An American president who entertains the idea of launching an attack would have to consider that the Russians might launch their missiles as soon as their radar saw our missiles coming; and even if they didn't, some Russian missiles would survive the attack, get through the defensive barrier, and wind up killing millions of Americans.) But such are the contemplations of the nuclear priesthood. (In Cold War days, U.S. think-tank denizens, generals, and even a few officials went through similar calculations, all of them beginning, "If the Soviets launched a first strike …")

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Still, to clarify matters, the Obama administration tacked on its own unilateral statement to the New START treaty, taking note of Russia's statement but adding that U.S. missile defenses "are not intended to affect the strategic balance with Russia." Rather, they're aimed to defend against "limited missile launches" by "regional threats," and, to that end, the United States will "continue improving and deploying" its missile-defense systems.

In any case, as the three Obama officials emphasized at today's hearing, unilateral statements have no binding impact on any treaty's signatories; they are not, and never have been, recognized as a legally enforceable part of a treaty's text.

True, Russia threatened to pull out of the treaty if the United States makes much further progress in missile-defense deployments. But Article 14 of the treaty allows either side to pull out, with three months' notice, "if it decides that external events related to the subject matter of the Treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests." (Italics added.) All treaties have similar escape hatches. In 2001, President George W. Bush pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty because it prohibited operational tests of missile-defense systems, and Bush wanted to conduct those tests.

So Russia may not like our missile-defense program, but the treaty doesn't limit it in any way, and, as Gates in particular proclaimed, we're moving ahead.

If Senate Republicans want to oppose the treaty because of what Russia might decide to do a few years from now, they can. But they should know that they're not really dealing with the substance of the treaty.

Nor are these Republicans thinking through this scenario. Nations generally pull out of a treaty because they calculate that it's keeping them from doing something that will give them an advantage. If the Russians pulled out of New START because (whether rationally or not) they're worried about America's growing missile-defense program, how would that give them an advantage? If they started building more offensive nuclear warheads to saturate the U.S. defenses, the United States would start building more warheads, too—and, at least for now, we have a lot more money and technical resources to resume an arms race than the Russians do.

But all this is, in a way, beside the point. Missile defense is a red-meat issue for Republican congressional leaders. If they want to hand Obama a defeat, they will press hard on this issue to get there.

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