Commentary Magazine


Peace in Our Time: Moscow

National Security Adviser Jim Jones and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, resumed START talks with the Russians in Moscow on Thursday. Remarkably, the negotiations are not backstopped by an existing treaty still in force. The old START treaty expired on December 5, 2009. The U.S. verification team left Russia’s ICBM production facility in Votkinsk the day the treaty expired; mutual agreement to other verification measures can no longer be assumed. As of January 2010, we have an agreement in principle by presidents Obama and Medvedev to reduce nuclear warheads, but we don’t have a binding treaty.

It’s hard to characterize this as anything but a step backward. Although the 2002 “SORT” Treaty remains in effect until 2012, it differs from START in containing no verification provisions. Russia has participated in it largely to acquire a bargaining position against Bush’s missile-defense plan for Europe; but Obama obviated that negotiating dynamic by renouncing Bush’s plan in September. With much now riding on the 2010 START negotiations, we bring few bargaining chips. The Russians have an incentive to keep us in talks because that will effectively suspend U.S. decisions about modernizing our nuclear forces, but they now have no incentive to make important concessions. Their demands, meanwhile, will be unpalatable to the U.S. Senate, which warned Obama in December that the ratification of a new treaty will be contingent on a plan for modernizing our forces.

The conditions are thus developing for an impasse in START negotiations. In the interim, we are without a functioning plan for strategic stability. With his September decision on the European missile site, Obama rejected the Bush concept of centering our global security on American national missile defense. The fallback position – the one the Russians continue to favor – is a rough balance of strategic nuclear forces; but the START treaty has expired. There is no basis for demanding compliance with it.

Instead of a plan, what we have at present is inertia. Trusting to inertia is always a risky policy, particularly when wild cards are already in the picture. China’s subtle policy shift on strategic stability last week is a change in conditions that will affect the relevance of a bilateral arms-reduction process just as much as it affects the postures of the START parties.

Obama isn’t to blame for all the conditions that have developed since 1991 – but he is accountable for abandoning our previous strategic-security policies without replacing them. His focus on reducing nuclear warheads is a noble goal, and by no means unrealistic. However, the uncompensated loss in 2009 of both the START treaty and our plan for a comprehensive national missile defense has proved that his focus is too narrow. With five nuclear-armed Asian powers and Iran trying to become the sixth, there is nothing America needs more than a comprehensive concept for strategic security. At the moment we don’t have one.