Senate needs to ratify New START to reduce nuclear weapon levels

Forty-two years ago today, 62 countries — including the United States — signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, agreeing to restrict the proliferation of nuclear weapons, technology and materials. The premise of the NPT, one of the most significant multilateral arms control treaties of our time, is that a world with fewer nuclear weapons is a safer world.

This premise has been reinforced over the years. It was Ronald Reagan who committed America to “the ultimate goal of eliminating these weapons from the face of the earth.” This goal has animated numerous arms control agreements since then, and it underpins the New START treaty — an agreement we cannot fail to ratify.

The dangers of nuclear proliferation have grown. While the threat of global nuclear war has receded, the risk of nuclear attack — enabled by the spread of nuclear technology and danger of materials falling into the wrong hands — has increased.

We cannot be seen as a credible leader — or as a nation strongly committed to meeting our non-proliferation obligations — without pursuing further nuclear arms reductions ourselves. With more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arms between us, the United States and Russia have an obligation to verifiably decrease our nuclear stockpiles and reduce this primary threat to global and national security.

That’s why the New START Treaty matters. Begun under the Bush administration, the treaty was finally signed in April. It establishes limits for U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons to levels lower than the 1991 START Treaty and the 2002 Moscow Treaty. These limits have been validated by our defense planners and ensure we have the flexibility to meet our security needs. The treaty also includes a strong verification regime, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the “key contribution” of the agreement.

As the Senate debates New START, we should not only consider the consequences of ratification, but also the consequences of failure. Because START I expired last December, we currently have no treaty, and therefore, no constraints on Russia’s stockpile or verification of their weapons.

The choice facing U.S. presidents through the decades has been whether we are better off signing arms agreement with the Russians or pursuing an arms race. Historically, presidents from both parties and bipartisan majorities in the U.S. Senate have agreed we are better served by agreements. Today is no different. As U.S. Strategic Command’s General Chilton testified, “If we don’t get the treaty, they [the Russians] are not constrained in their development of force structure and…we have no insight into what they’re doing.  So it’s the worst of both possible worlds.”

Failure to ratify this treaty would make the “resetting” of U.S.-Russian relations harder. The distrust it would engender would also reduce or eliminate the possibility of further bilateral strategic weapons reductions.

But as the treaty’s lead negotiator, Rose Gottemoeller, stated, this treaty “is not just about Washington and Moscow. … It is about the entire world community.” Failure to ratify this treaty would signal to the world that America is not willing to constrain its own weapons arsenal, even as we ask other countries to restrict theirs or avoid joining the “nuclear club” altogether. It would discourage multilateral cooperation on nonproliferation goals and hinder our ability to lead by example. It would make global cooperation on dealing with rogue states like Iran and North Korea more challenging, tying our hands at a time when the threat from those two countries is increasing.

New START Treaty opponents have tried to make the case that the dangers of ratifying the agreement outweigh the advantages of ratification. They are wrong.

They argue the treaty limits our ability to develop missile defense capabilities. The head of the Missile Defense Agency argued the opposite — that the treaty actually reduces constraints on missile defense.

Moreover, we should focus on cooperation with Russia on missile defense, as the Obama administration is beginning to do, instead of rejecting arms reduction agreements on the mistaken premise that they constrain our ability to develop missile defenses.

Treaty opponents argue it inhibits our ability to maintain an effective and reliable nuclear arsenal. It’s true the Obama administration inherited an underfunded and undervalued nuclear weapons complex. But the president understands the nuclear experts and infrastructure that maintain our arsenal also help secure loose nuclear materials, verify weapons reductions and develop technologies that underpin our nuclear deterrent. That’s why his budget request provides $7 billion for these programs, a 10 percent increase over last year. New START would in no way limit these investments.

Ratifying this treaty goes beyond politics. Top national security leaders from both parties recently published a statement of support for New START, warning us that “a world without a binding U.S.-Russian nuclear weapons agreement is a much more dangerous world.”

We should heed this warning and ratify this agreement as soon as possible.

Sen. Udall is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee