Kyl Vs. Kyl On START Treaty

In a speech on the Senate floor in November, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) alarmingly accused the Obama administration of failing to plan for the expiration of the original START treaty, which was due to expire on Dec. 5.

I urge my colleagues to consider what will happen on December 6, the day after the expiration of that agreement. For the first time in 15 years, an extensive set of verification, notification, elimination and other confidence building measures will expire. The U.S. will lose a significant source of information that has allowed it to have confidence in its ability to understand Russian strategic nuclear forces… The paramount object of this treaty should have been to extend the verification measure of the 1991 Agreement. But, it appears that the administration’s object was to lock in significant nuclear weapons cuts.

Kyl’s accusations were ultimately proven to be entirely off-base, as the Administration reached an agreement with the Russians to extend most of the verification and monitoring measures of Ronald Reagan’s original START treaty until a new treaty could be ratified.

But Kyl’s alarmism at the prospect of the loss of verification measures deserves to be highlighted. Should he and his Republican colleagues in the Senate work kill the treaty during the ratification process, all of Kyl’s warnings about the implications of the loss of the START verification system would in fact become a reality. The failure to ratify the new START treaty would significantly upset nuclear stability by eroding trust between the two countries — potentially spawning a new nuclear arms race, as Kyl himself argued. This would, as a result, upset the non-proliferation regime and severely upset nuclear stability around the globe. In short, if the US doesn’t ratify a treaty that largely maintains the nuclear status quo between the US and Russia, the whole nuclear non-proliferation regime, as well as US-Russian relations, could unravel.


The Kyl of November 2009 was right about the possibly dangerous and disastrous implications of START not existing. But the Kyl of 2010 seems to have forgotten the warnings made by Kyl of 2009.

While Kyl has not said that he would oppose the treaty, he and has staff have now grasped onto a petty and inconsequential issue — one that the administration has no control over and has no practical impact — as grounds for opposing the treaty. The issue is over whether Russia will unilaterally issue a statement following the START agreement that says that they will withdraw from the treaty should they feel that missile defense upsets “strategic stability.” Kyl, as well as the Wall Street Journal, are desperately trying to claim that this declaration will enable Russia will to hold us hostage by threatening missile defense. But this is a farcical argument. All treaties contain provisions that give countries the right to withdraw from a treaty for whatever reason they see fit. Therefore, it simply doesn’t matter if the Russians write anything down, since written or not they could still always withdraw from the treaty if they feel missile defense has undercut them. As former Ambassador to the Ukraine and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution Steven Pifer noted:

Who cares? … There is a supreme interest withdrawal clause that goes back to the original START treaty and can be invoked for any reason by either side so long as they provide six months’ notice.

Michael Krepon at Arms Control Wonk goes further, noting that if successful, Kyl will be giving Russians a victory on missile defense:

Throwing mud against the wall and seeing what sticks is a time-honored approach to messing up treaty ratification… If the mud sticks in this instance, Senators will be sending a very unfortunate message abroad — that the United States of America can be spooked by unilateral statements that have no legal or practical effect. They will also be giving unintended credence to the canard that Moscow has veto rights over U.S. ballistic missile defense programs.

Kyl’s claims that such a statement is reason enough to kill the treaty, is either willfully ignorant of how treaties work or he is simply looking for an excuse to oppose it. The Kyl of 2010 needs to be reminded of the arguments made by Kyl of 2009.