START Treaty Will Be A Fight Over The Soul Of The Republican Party

President Obama is having a good week. Reports now indicate that the US and Russia have reached an agreement on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that will replace the old treaty that expired last December. Thus, after signing into law his chief domestic priority, the President will soon sign a new START treaty (likely in Prague), thereby advancing his chief foreign policy priority and providing some justification to his awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize. The New York Times concludes:

The new treaty represents perhaps the most concrete foreign policy achievement for Mr. Obama since he took office 14 months ago and the most significant result of his effort to ‘reset’ the troubled relationship with Russia.

The new START treaty will reduce the number of nuclear weapons pointed at US cities and will enable the US to continue to be able to monitor Russia’s nuclear stockpiles. It will cut deployed strategic nuclear warheads from 2200 to about 1550 and will cut the total number of launchers from 1600 to 800. It will also ensure that the framework of the previous START treaty — a treaty that was the brain-child of Ronald Reagan and was advanced by President George H.W. Bush — is maintained.

In other words, this new START follow-on agreement will maintain the status quo and preserve nuclear stability, while making modest advances in reducing nuclear weapons. The significance of this treaty is that it lays the groundwork for more far-reaching talks between the US and Russia and will lay the groundwork for strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime, as this new agreement will allow both countries to show that they are keeping their end of the decades old nuclear bargain.


Despite this treaty having extensive bi-partisan support among senior foreign policy officials — such as George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, Richard Lugar (R-IN), Colin Powell –ratification is far from assured. There are real questions over whether the Senate GOP will seek to obstruct the ratification of the treaty. Treaties require a two-thirds majority, therefore eight or nine Republican votes are needed to ratify this treaty. If the Senate GOP wants to kill it they can. Therefore if ratification becomes a fight — it will not be a fight between Republicans and Obama, it will be a fight within the Republican caucus — between moderates and the far right.

In a sign of how extreme the GOP Senate leadership has become, Bloomberg reported, following word the treaty was done, that “Senate Republicans would object to linkages similar to the one in the 1991 treaty.” In other words, what was acceptable to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, would not be acceptable to Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ).

The only objection that Kyl’s staff could come up with is that the treaty contains irrelevant and entirely symbolic line about missile defense in the preamble to the treaty. Ryan Patmintra, a spokesman for Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, went on the record, insisting that “unilateral declarations that the Russian Federation could use as leverage against you or your successors when U.S. missile defense decisions are made.”

But this is all a ludicrous smokescreen. Even if there was no line about missile defense, Russia could still use missile defense as a reason to withdraw from the treaty, since every treaty has an out-clause and either country can use whatever justification they want to justify a withdrawal. Richard Lugar, the foremost arms-control expert in the Senate, also poured cold water on these claims:

Missile defense will not be part of the treaty, but in the preamble both parties will state their positions and there will be a mention of offense and defense and the importance of those…they are in essence editorial opinions.

If Kyl and the GOP leadership in the Senate end up killing the treaty, they will be sending the world into nuclear chaos. If treaty ratification fails it is not as if the current status quo simply continues. The old START treaty has expired and should ratification fail the informal agreement in which both the US and Russia adhere to the treaty, despite it not being in force, will end. In other words, Jon Kyl and the Senate GOP could be sending us into an age of nuclear anarchy in regards to US and Russian nuclear relations. It will also essentially kill the nuclear non-proliferation regime by betraying its basic bargain. While the Senate GOP leadership maybe so politically craven or so ideologically extreme that they are willing to endanger US national security in exchange for scoring a political defeat against the President, such reckless extremism can only be stopped by other more moderate members of the Senate GOP.