When the U.S. and Russian negotiating teams wrapped up their treaty negotiations last March, some of us thought that a treaty capping both countries’ deployed warheads at 1,550 within seven years was a modest step but whose real worth lay in the improvement that it would signal in the political relationship between Moscow and Washington. We thought, "Let’s get this ratified," -- and then move on to the much more significant Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty outlawing nuclear explosions globally which will constrain other states from acquiring a nuclear weapon once it enters into force. Job done, we thought.
Five months later, it is clear to any sentient observer that no matter what arguments on substance are put forth by the treaty’s supporters, who include the present and past members of the defense and policy establishment, the Republican minority will continue to move the goal posts. They are executing a tightly choreographed and well-disciplined dance which has postponed a vote on the treaty by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from last month until mid-September.
Optimists still hope that the treaty will be approved by the full Senate before the mid-term elections, but as former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft told the Washington Post, it looks like "some just don't want to give Obama a victory" before November. The treaty, whose ratification should have been a no-brainer, is now held hostage to petty domestic politics.
It’s a tough call for Senator Lugar, the only Republican on the Committee demonstrating statesmanship and who publicly favors approval. With a two thirds Senate majority needed for ratification, the administration still has a mountain to climb. But officials have fallen over backwards to deal with the Republicans’ objections one by one, even preempting a predictable demand by promising a total $180 billion over 10 years for modernizing the nuclear weapons complex and the weapons’ delivery systems. Will the administration meet a new demand from the Republicans for an additional $10 billion?
If it does, what would be there next request?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rightly says, that U.S. national security is at risk because there will be no verification of Russia’s long-range nuclear arsenal until the treaty is ratified.
But beyond national security looms the issue of U.S. relations with the rest of the world. Needless to say, America’s allies are perplexed. They have had to learn patience over the years. After all, Bill Clinton was the first world leader in 1996 to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which was rejected three years later by the Senate. But increasingly the question is asked: why negotiate a treaty with a US administration if it can’t get it ratified? What are the members of the Russian Duma supposed to think as they focus on New START ratification? There are questions, too, about President Obama’s ability to deliver. But this is not just about President Obama, it goes to the heart of America’s standing in the world. If allies are perplexed, what will be the calculations of U.S. enemies?
As former defense secretary William Perry warned in an early Senate hearing: “If we fail to ratify this treaty, the United States will forfeit any right to provide any leadership in this field throughout the world.”
Anne Penketh is program director for the British American Security Information Council (BASIC).