Looming Partisan Shift Adds Urgency to Nuke Treaty

When U.S. President Barack Obama capped a flurry of activity on nuclear non-proliferation this spring by welcoming the largest gathering of world leaders ever in Washington for a Nuclear Security Summit, many experts hoped to see cascading effects that would lead to even further elimination of nuclear weapons.

But progress has stalled since then, with Republican gains in the U.S. Senate threatening not only additional reductions in nuclear weapons but even the reductions already agreed to in a New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). 

That START treaty was signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Prague just before the start of April’s Washington summit. Since then, a long line of high-profile officials and former diplomats have praised the treaty, but the policymakers who must actually decide whether it gets ratified have given it decidedly mixed reviews. 

The U.S. now finds itself in the awkward position of seeing what was viewed as Obama’s top foreign policy achievement so far – and a critical step for nuclear non-proliferation – on the verge of falling into legislative limbo. 

The treaty also still awaits approval in Moscow. Citing concerns over whether the Senate will ratify the treaty as it was agreed, the Russian Duma’s foreign affairs committee has withdrawn its recommendation for ratification in the wake of the Republican victories in last week’s U.S. election. 

While traveling in Asia, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said this week that the Senate should try to get the treaty approved during its current "lame-duck" session, before the newly elected senators arrive and the voted-out ones leave. 

Senator John Kerry, chair of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday he is very hopeful the Senate will take up debate on the accord before that session ends and that it is likely it will. 

Many Republicans are less sure. 

The treaty would require a two-thirds majority to be ratified, or 67 of the 100 senators. Currently, 57 of those seats are held by Democrats, but that number will drop to 53 when the new Congress begins in January. 

Even with the several high-profile Republicans who have announced their support for the treaty, then, the path to ratification is expected to get much steeper after the lame- duck session ends. 

But though some on the right are pushing against the New START treaty, which is a follow-up to the original signed in 1991, others are pushing for the next START treaty to go even further. 

Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), points out that even after the implementation of the New START the U.S. and Russia will still have enough nuclear weapons to annihilate each other several times over. 

The treaty continues the gradual reductions in nuclear stockpiles that have occurred since the end of the Cold War. Specifically, it calls for a reduction in nuclear warheads on deployed missiles and rockets from the 2,200 now allowed to 1,500 for each country. This reduction will take place within seven years of the date the treaty enters into force. 

It will also lower the limit of the deployed and non- deployed missiles, rockets and bombers that transport the warheads to 800 total and allow the U.S. and Russia limited monitoring of each others’ progress. 

Zenko argues that further reductions would be even more advantageous. In a report issued by CFR Tuesday, he says 1,000 warheads, including tactical nuclear weapons, would be both strategically and politically advantageous through decreasing the risk of nuclear weapons theft and nuclear attack and increasing international political support for future U.S. initiatives to reduce or control nuclear warheads – while still maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent. 

"An arsenal of one thousand nuclear weapons is more than sufficient to allow the U.S. military to sustain the nuclear triad to deter any plausible current and future threats, or respond with a devastating retaliation in the case of a nuclear first strike," Zenko writes. 

But Senator John Kyl fears reducing nuclear weapons will mean less spending on the U.S.’s nuclear infrastructure and on modernizing its arsenal, with corresponding job cuts. 

Republicans have also expressed concern over language in the treaty that acknowledges Russia’s fears over possible expansion of missile defense systems by the U.S. They see these programs as vital to U.S. national security, while most Democrats, including the Obama administration, do not. 

Republicans have also expressed concern over the verification procedures used to ensure Russia complies with the provisions. 

Democrats have reassured Republican senators that 80 billion dollars has already been committed to the U.S. nuclear infrastructure over the next 10 years and argue that the verification measures are adequate. 

Meanwhile, the START treaty continues to enjoy what U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates calls "the unanimous support of America’s military leadership," opening the door for Zemko and others – including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov – to begin issuing recommendations for how best to continue the work of the first two START treaties.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Matthew Berger

Matthew Berger writes for Inter Press Service.