The debate over START is overall a pretty weak one. Conservatives on the far-right try to find things to nitpick about the treaty, or make factually dubious or contradictory claims about its impact. These points are then thoroughly refuted. And then the cycle repeats itself. The basic problem for treaty opponents is not just that there are not that many of them and that they are grasping at straws, but that even if it were true that this New START treaty had flaws or was not as good as the old one, it is still better than the alternative — which is no treaty and no inspection or monitoring of Russia’s nuclear forces. As a result, most serious relatively status quo national security officials — even those that feverishly oppose broader Obama’s nuclear agenda, like arch-conservative James Schlesinger — support START.
New START is really just about stability, it is about continuing down the status-quo arms-control path that has been practiced by the US for the last half century. Thus, the pro-START side represents the general post-Cold War foreign policy consensus in the US that is in favor of reducing nuclear weapons and gradually unwinding the massive nuclear build up of the Cold War. This view unites the Democratic foreign policy establishment (Sam Nunn, Bill Perry) and the traditional Republican foreign policy establishment (Kissinger, Powell, Baker, Scowcroft).
But if you think the status quo is highly dangerous, if you want to radically and fundamentally change US nuclear policy and you have an entirely different perception of the world that believes the Cold War never really ended and as a result you aren’t just distrustful, but outwardly paranoid of Russian intentions than this treaty is probably not for you. This side consists of the Heritage Foundation and some prominent Republican Senators — like Senator Jon Kyl, Jim DeMint, and James Inhofe. What they want is to shatter the nuclear status quo. James Carafano of Heritage clarified the dividing lines of the debate, when he wrote:
What Senator Kerry and Senator Lugar both overlook is probably one of the most important questions to address — why in the post-Cold War era is the U.S. content with accepting the Cold War status quo? This treaty solidifies Russia’s role as a dominant nuclear power by putting the Russian arsenal on par with ours. It was a classic example of nuclear diplomacy and will only lead to Russia seeking further concessions down the road. It is imperative that this treaty is looked at as something more than an arms control document. Once that is done, it will become clear why this treaty is wrong for the U.S.
See the problem with START not that this or that monitoring provision isn’t good, Carafano’s problem is simply that this is an “arms-control document.” To Carafano this is a treaty that keeps the US at relative nuclear parity with Russia, which ensures Russia’s status as a dominant nuclear power. But to Carafano only the US should be the dominant nuclear power and as a result the only way to have an arms-control treaty with Russia is to have one where there is designed disparity, where the US is allowed to have more nukes than the Russians, where the Russians are forced to acknowledge the US as nuclear top dog. After all to Carafano and the right we have the capability to bury them. We are richer and could spend billions or trillions building more nukes in a new arms race or building a super sweet (yet infeasible) missile defense system to target them. At the point, then Russia will really have to kneel and kiss the ring.
This is an extremely radical and destabilizing view. This is a vision that doesn’t want to unwind the Cold War — since to them the Soviet/Russian adversary is still out there. This is a vision that therefore is determined to build and test new, more usable nuclear weapons. They don’t want to unwind the Cold War, they want to try to win it again.
Yet this is such a warped, outdated, and dumb conception of power. We worry about China’s strategic intentions and would tend to see China as more powerful and influential than Russia now, yet they only have around 250 nuclear weapons compared to our 5,000. The Chinese know that if they can take out Los Angeles, we will be deterred from invading them, to them any capability beyond that is basically just a waste of money — since being able to kill 8 million people in 30 minutes is a pretty massive deterrent.
Nuclear weapons are the great power equalizer. In fact, the country that would have the most to gain from a realpolitik power standpoint from eliminating all nuclear weapons on the planet would be the United States, since our conventional military forces are by far and away the strongest in the world. Yet small, poor, backward countries like North Korea are able to deter and check a huge superpower at bay by possessing just a handful of nuclear weapons. In other words, if we have more nuclear weapons than Russia that doesn’t make us any stronger than them. There are rapidly diminishing returns to possessing these weapons.
While Obama is often described as pushing a radical vision in advocating the abolition of nuclear weapons, it is really anything but. And this is not just because Reagan, Kennedy, Eisenhower and now Kissinger, Schultz, Nunn and Perry advocated the same vision. It is because to achieve this goal the process involves gradual arms-control steps, like New START, along with additional efforts to strengthen the existing nuclear non-proliferation regime. The vision to get to a world without nuclear weapons does not really involve changing course, but merely continuing down the road that President like Reagan already put us on. The real radicals are the ones trying to get us to turn off Reagan’s road by rejecting START.