START: A Russian Nuclear Treaty That Has Little to Do With Russian Nukes

The Senate has just signed off on a nuclear treaty with Russia after a weeks-long political fight. Oddly, Russian nukes were not the prime motivating issue behind it.

The New START treaty, which passed the Senate Wednesday by a 71 to 26 vote, will reinstate an arms-control regime that includes caps on the number of missiles and warheads the U.S. and Russia can possess. It will allow for inspections and require notifications and uniform procedures for moving and disposing of missiles.

President Obama signed the treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, and since then Republican senators have raised objections, but from the start (no pun intended), those objections had more to do with American nuclear weapons than Russian ones.

Republicans like Sen. Jon Kyl, the principal GOP objector, protested that the administration had diminished America's "nuclear deterrent" by agreeing to new caps. Kyl and others preferred to upgrade the U.S. arsenal, rather than phase it out.

But amid those concerns, the underlying argument was this: The Cold War is over, and even having such a treaty feels outdated.

Undeniably, nuclear war with Russia seems far less likely than in 1984, when negotiations opened on the first START treaty. By the time the original START was being put into place, even, the situation had changed dramatically. It was first signed in July of 1991 by George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin. The Soviet Union collapsed six months later, and the threat shifted instantly from Soviet state aggression to loose nukes and rogue Soviet military officers. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan were tacked onto the treaty after they split away.

Today, the threat of nuclear weapons has once again changed completely.

The primary threats now come from international terrorists, Iran, and North Korea -- as Sen. Kyl pointed out in his final Senate-floor speech against ratification.

"The real issue is not between Russia and the U.S., it's dealing with these other threats," Kyl said. "So I suggest that we move away from distractions of agreements like this."

Why then, in an era of terrorism and rogue states, should the U.S. define its nuclear policies in the context of Russia? Why curtail America's arsenal based on limits that Russia, our old nuclear foe, will agree to? Russia's arsenal stands at 500 missiles, according to Russian diplomats who negotiated the treaty, while the U.S. arsenal stands at 1,100. In theory, the U.S. has more to lose.

For the treaty's advocates, however, it's not about Russian nukes either.

To its supporters, New START means a strategic partnership with Russia that will mitigate the risk of other nukes--the same ones, in fact, about which Kyl is concerned--and generate momentum (or preserve the image of momentum) toward international consensus on nonproliferation and disarmament.

While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pointed to expired inspections (since the first START expired in December 2009, America has not been inspecting Russia's arsenal during the past year) as a source of urgency, a broader goal seems to be strengthening the U.S.-Russia relationship, with an eye toward cooperation on pressuring Iran.

A senior administration official made the case, after a NATO meeting this year, that after trying to "reset" U.S.-Russia relations (they'd soured dramatically as the conflict in Georgia unfolded during the latter Bush days) President Obama needed to be able to show Medvedev he's capable of holding up his end of the bargain.

The upshot of the improved U.S.-Russia relationship, the administration openly hopes, will have something to do with Obama's signature international policy concern: global nuclear nonproliferation.

Russia has cooperated with sanctions on Iran--a major coup for Obama and Clinton, given that Russia has previously aided Iran in developing its nuclear program. Failing to ratify this treaty, some have argued, would endanger that agreement, heighten the risk of Iranian nukes, and damage the chances of building an international nonproliferation regime.

Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the treaty's leading proponents, had argued that "failure to renew START will be seen worldwide as weakening the international nuclear nonproliferation regime and a further sign to many foreign leaders and experts that U.S. nonproliferation policy is adrift."

It seems anachronistic to watch senators debate an arms-control treaty with Russia, and to have such a Cold-War-era issue take center stage in national politics.

It makes more sense, though, when taken as a proxy debate for how to confront the threats of the present decade: Obama's preferred method of coalition-building, which involves some sacrifice and compromises with strategic partners, vs. the more hawkish idea of beefing up American arsenals as a deterrent against those newer threats.

Thumbnail image credit: Mika V. Stetsovski/Flickr