Foreign Policy

A Cold War Relic

Why the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is not a priority


A specter has been haunting Washington, D.C.—a Cold War-era ghost known as the START treaty.

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last April to replace the previous treaty which expired a year ago, is now at risk of being stalled by Republicans in Congress. The ostensible issue is mainly procedural—GOP leaders assert that other items on the agenda of the lame-duck Democratic majority have left too little time to debate the pact in the remainder of this session—but Obama supporters charge that the Republicans are simply hell-bent on thwarting the President. High dudgeon-prone blogger Andrew Sullivan calls this "close to organized vandalism." Other START champions such as former CIA covert operations officer and Bush Administration critic Valerie Plame Wilson insist, in less vehement language, that scuttling the treaty will harm both national and global security, undercutting efforts to curb nuclear weapons and reversing important improvements in U.S.-Russian relations.

On the opposite side, some conservatives such as Heritage Foundation fellow Peter Brookes and columnist Ralph Peters have argued that START makes dangerous concessions to Russia. The terms of the treaty, they claim, would not only force the U.S. to give up too much of its nuclear arsenal but also undercut our conventional capability and our potential for developing missile defense. Yet a Brookings Institution analysis published last summer suggests that these concerns are vastly exaggerated; some top conservative foreign policy experts such as Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations agree. Yet, contrary to the assertions of some STARTers (such as Sullivan), these experts generally don't regard START as beneficial so much as irrelevant—in Boot's words, "much ado about nothing."

Despite Russia's recent warnings that failure to ratify the treaty could lead to a new arms race, the simple fact is that the U.S.-Russian nuclear rivalry is not nearly as important or as menacing as it used to be. Russia is no longer a superpower, or a putative ideological competitor to the West. It is a regional power that has to scramble for even local dominance, and that commands far more clout through the strategic use of its oil and gas reserves than through strategic nuclear arms. In the 21st Century, our anxieties about nuclear weapons are focused on small rogue states and stateless terrorists, not on the Kremlin and its missiles.

Even during the Cold War era, arms reduction talks and treaties were little more than a ritual dance whose primary value was symbolic: to show that the two nuclear superpowers were negotiating, compromising, and trying to avoid confrontation ("better jaw-jaw than war-war"). As Charles Krauthammer puts it, this arguably had "a soporific and therapeutic effect" at a time when fears of global thermonuclear war seemed very real. Today, this is a ritual dance in a time warp. Even its symbolic benefits accrue almost exclusively to the authoritarian regime in the Kremlin, which gets an ego boost from being treated as an equal negotiating partner to the United States—in the only area where Russia can still enjoy such status. Call it a stroll down superpower memory lane.

The practical rationale commonly given for the importance of START is that it's needed to keep things on a friendly footing with Russia. Failure to approve it, we are told, would fatally jeopardize the Obama-era "reset" in often troubled relationship between the U.S. and Russia, at a time when Russia's help is essential to such tasks as curbing nuclear proliferation and, in particular, reining in Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Yet, as long as Russia is ruled by a corrupt and lawless authoritarian regime that uses nationalist muscle-flexing to prop up its power at home, it will remain an unreliable partner abroad—particularly when sticking it to Uncle Sam remains a favored means of self-assertion, a tendency the "reset" has not changed. On the issue of Iran, for instance, the Kremlin's agenda has been to use tensions between Washington and Teheran and play both sides to increase its own leverage. Last June, mere days after finally agreeing to back a new round of United Nations sanctions against Iran, Moscow issued a scathing denunciation of separate and tougher U.S. and European Union sanctions.

Russia's decision in September to cancel an $800-million contract to supply S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran—which could be used to defend Iranian nuclear installations against attack—has been cited as a remarkable achievement of the "reset," and the kind of success that could be jeopardized if START is not passed. But the reality is far more complex.

For one, the decision to cancel the missile sale in compliance with U.N. sanctions was almost certainly influenced by Russia's relationship with Israel as much as its relationship with the U.S. Indeed, this is confirmed by WikiLeaks disclosures that Russia had previously offered to call off the sale exchange for access to Israeli advanced technology.
What's more, according to the Stratfor global security consultancy—generally a reliable source of information—it is possible that what Russia takes away with one hand, it gives with the other. In late November, Stratfor reported that Russia recently supplied advanced radar defense systems to Iran, using Belarus and Venezuela as intermediaries. While this information has not been confirmed, its confirmation would surprise no one.

It now seems that, with the help of some cooperative Republicans, START may win passage after all. This will not be a calamity. But the failure to pass it would not have been particularly calamitous, either—and its victory in Congress will not be the achievement the Obama Administration will undoubtedly tout.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.

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  1. If START is so unimportant then why does Cathy Young (aka Ekaterina Jung) bother to write an article about it and why do Senate Republicans bother to block it?

    1. Huh? Do you seriously intend to argue that low priority legislation should be rubber stamped without debate?

      1. Who is rubber stamping it? The Treaty has been proposed since April. Its not that much different then the last START treaty. The Senate has plenty of time to read it. Its not like all the laws that the Senate passes where they don’t have time to read like the bailouts or the health care laws, 8 months should be plenty of time to read it and come up with some actual objections

        Ekaterina Jung article does not even come up with any part of the new START treaty to oppose? All it is is another Ekaterina Jung anti-Russia article with no actual facts about the START treaty.

        1. The Senate has plenty of time to read it.

          Actually, at the Senate grade reading level, this has been just enough time to finish the title.

  2. You heard right, comrad, I married my dog.

    1. I’d like to compete, but I haven’t seen any of the article images since they changed the look of the site.

      I can’t believe it’s just me, either, since I’ve tried on several devices, browsers, and connections.

  3. We should encourage the Russians in their role of flooding the world with shitty, inoperable weapons.

    1. u mean like the AK47 ?

  4. I can totally see how libertarians would oppose this since, you know, it’s not like bad relations with Russia in the past has led to any expansive government programs or anything!

  5. It’s nice that Ms. Young cherrypicked Andrew Sullivan and Valerie Plame for illustrating the group of people who support this treaty, and not say, the bulk of living Republican former Secretaries of Defense and State that do.

    1. Those republicans by and large are the guys who shit their pants when Reagan said “tear down this wall” and thought that the U.S.S.R. would be around forever.

      Their strategic thinking and advice sucked ass back then, and it still does today.

  6. Funny story. Probably true.

    Bush says he had introduced then-Russian President Putin to his Scottish terrier, Barney, on a visit to the U.S. presidential retreat, Camp David.

    Putin returned the favor when Bush visited Russia and Putin was giving him a tour of the grounds of his dacha.

    “A big black Labrador came charging across the lawn. With a twinkle in his eye, Vladimir said, ‘Bigger, stronger, faster than Barney,'” Bush writes. A copy of the book was obtained by Reuters.

    Bush says he later told the story to the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, who replied: “You’re lucky he only showed you his dog.”

    1. Putin is a trip, like a male version of Sarah Palin with more accomplishments in life.

      1. Both of whom dwarf your sorry ass.

        1. Irony: one anonymous message board poster disparaging another anonymous message board poster over their presumed lack of world-changing accomplishments.

  7. Let me fix that into to summarize every Cathy Young summary:

    “The GOP…, but Obama supporters … Yet as Cathy Young explains [something boring]”

  8. This treaty is pretty much maintaining status quo. I don’t see anything wrong with that status quo, other than the arms limitations possibly being too high. If those limits are gone, the world is at risk of another arms race. And, unlike before, there’s a possibility of a new entrant, who Congress is very afraid of.

    And, if signing this weak treaty (along with the concessions all of the concessions that Obama is making to get it) is Obama’s hallmark achievement, and if I were a Republican, I’d be very happy.

    1. Not so. It has specific language that would tend to inhibit US development of anti-missile systems, which is why the Russians want it. They can’t afford to maintain that many strategic nukes anyway — but they sure want to be sure they can hit New York if they want to. An anti-missile system that prevented that would suck, for them.

  9. The existence of large nuclear arsenals is a dangerous absurdity. It is not a strategic necessity. We probably don’t have to fear being attacked by Russia (though its flirtations with authoritarianism aren’t encouraging), but we do have something to fear from the existence of these nukes, especially in the hands of a weak Russia, as the likelihood of one or more falling into the hands of fundamentalists or nihilists increases inevitably with time. This treaty is a good step, and for diplomatic purposes probably an essential one. The reason Republicans are acting noncommittal is the same reason they’ve blocked everything proposed by this government: they don’t want a policy win registered for the other side. Talk about nihilists. Reason wouldn’t be shilling on behalf of this motivation, would it? Never!

    1. You know, Tony, you were doing so well up until about two-thirds of the way through – I was thinking to myself, “Wow, Tony’s saying something eminently sensible.”

      Then you just staggered to the finish, there. So close!

      1. He’s got a point. Actually, the big sticking point is apparently Utah Senator John Kyl who won’t sign that thing unless he gets some major concessions for his state’s aerospace industry.

        Uhh, here’s a NYT article, I know that’s gonna go over well. http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes…

        Seriously though, this treaty decreases the number of weapons and keeps in place safe guards to ensure that Russian weapons aren’t “lost” when some general wants to buy a Ferrari. It also shrinks the size of the Mil-Ind complex, which I figured would be super popular with the crowd.

        1. No, he’s just stupid and uninformed. The major objections from the Republican side are the specific language that makes it likely US efforts to develop missile defenses — you know, the kind that might be used to shoot down a Nork Long Dong aimed at Seattle — would be constrained, and the ability of the US to keep the remaining nukes safe and reliable would be compromised.

          It’s the person who think this is all about gross numbers of warheads and/or the silly non-issue of “verification” who is grossly naive, here.

          1. But space lasers, that’s just good policy!

            1. What specific language? I dug into it a bit and it looks like worse case, the Russians could use our continued development of ABMs as an excuse to pull out of the treaty. Which doesn’t really upset me if the alternative is to not pass it at all. Here’s some light reading if you care.

  10. This treaty is a good step, and for diplomatic purposes probably an essential one.

    Like an unenforceable agreement that places no real restrictions on the Russians is a good step toward anything.

    Like the Russians give a crap, really, if this dies and the status quo continues. Essential to what, Tony?

  11. Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, Colin Powell, and Condi Rice have all urged passage. I think Cathy’s the Cold War relic here.


      1. Both of you, stop spelling my name wrong! Also, come on in kids. I’ve got puppies and ice cream.

  12. Like an unenforceable agreement that places no real restrictions on the Russians is a good step toward anything.

    What exactly do you mean? One of the advantages of the treaty is that it allows for verification of Russian nuclear stockpiles, whereas now we have no such right.

    Or is your claim the meta-issue about all treaties being fundamentally unenforceable? In which case, I’m not sure why this one deserves particular scorn.

    Having a Cold War-era nuclear stockpile is a fiscal albatross, and for the Russians, a potential security nightmare. What exactly is the downside to this one?

  13. The status quo ends. That’s the point. We lose the verification regime that has thus far prevented these weapons from being sold to the highest bidder.

    This is one of those political Rorschak tests. If you hate president Obama the person and don’t just disagree with his policies, that’s one reason to not like this treaty.

    There is a possibility that you just don’t like the Democratic policies. If that’s you, and you still think this treaty shouldn’t be ratified, you’re an idiot.

  14. One of the advantages of the treaty is that it allows for verification of Russian nuclear stockpiles, whereas now we have no such right.

    Ah, yes. Verification of nuclear weapons has such a famously successful history. Woo-hoo!

    Having a Cold War-era nuclear stockpile is a fiscal albatross, and for the Russians, a potential security nightmare.

    This is a problem that the Russians don’t need a treaty to solve. Anyone can unilaterally dispose of their own weapons, if they are, indeed, seen as fiscal albatross and security nightmare.

    1. Ah, yes. Verification of nuclear weapons has such a famously successful history. Woo-hoo!

      Your sarcasm indicates you believe otherwise. Would you care to expand on your argument?

      This is a problem that the Russians don’t need a treaty to solve. Anyone can unilaterally dispose of their own weapons, if they are, indeed, seen as fiscal albatross and security nightmare.

      You’re right, they don’t require a treaty to do it. But if a treaty encourages them to do so, again, where is the downside, particularly if their doing so is in our own self-interest? This seems like an obvious win-win.

  15. I have a general opposition to excessive entanglements with other countries, and I count this. This isn’t 1990; Russia is no longer trying to figure out what to do with itself. It’s had enough time to settle down, join the world economy, etc. It should be fully capable of monitoring it’s own nukes, and it may even be encouraged to stockpile less of them if they can disarm secretely, instead of publically looking weak if they go for less than the limit. It’s just a waste of time and effort to bother with these sort of agreements; that is, ones that are mostly symbolic, instead of having precise policy implications. And no, we would not have an arms race if this lapsed; Russia no longer has a shadow of a chance of winning that.

  16. One angle I haven’t heard considered here:
    1. The US is broke, and Russia has better things to spend its oil and gas revenues on than upgrading our aging and expensive nuclear weapons inventories;
    2. Weapons-grade uranium can be reworked into a much larger inventory of commercial reactor fuel — very useful if either of us were to increase our reliance on nuclear-generated electricity;
    3. Neither of us want to openly reduce our inventories of strategic weapons unilaterally. It gives others reason to openly question just how broke we both are, and gives up a chance to wring one last concession out of each other while doing something we both want to do anyway.

  17. This isn’t a priority, because unemployment is still at 10% and the chances of nuclear holocaust is remote.

    Anti nuclear activists can hope and wish upon a star until their face turns blue, but as long as one or two rogue nations harbor nuclear ambitions, the military superpowers will (or perhaps should) not abandon or reduce their own nuclear program.

  18. How about mbt kisumu sandals this one: there are X driving deaths a year- what % of driving deaths (or serious injuries) involve alcohol, or other intoxicating substances? kisumu 2 People are pretty darn good drivers when they are not impaired.

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