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 Atlantic.com 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.