Commentary Magazine


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RE: New START Treaty

With the perfervid push underway to get the New START treaty on the lame-duck Senate’s schedule, I would add this to the discussion between Jennifer, John, and Max: it’s not clear why the Obama administration is pushing for quick action. The Senate deliberations to date make it inadvisable.

The uneasy accord represented by the April 8 treaty signing is already falling apart. For the Russians, the opt-out clause in the preamble was of paramount concern. That clause makes their adherence to the treaty contingent on Russian approval of America’s plans for missile defense. The treaty stipulates that neither side will convert old ICBM silos for use in a strategic missile-defense system, but the preamble makes it clear that, for Moscow, U.S. missile-defense programs will actually be an open-ended source of conditions on the arms accord.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, in the official “understandings” included with its resolution on the treaty, has directly contradicted that Russian expectation. The three “understandings” were proposed by Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican, and adopted by the full committee in September. One of them articulates the committee’s belief that the treaty imposes no limitations on U.S. missile defenses other than the prohibition on the use of ICBM silos. The committee also “understands” that the treaty places no limits on American use of strategic weapon systems in a conventional (non-nuclear) role, and that if Russia resurrects its rail-mobile ICBM system, the treaty will apply to that as well as to the systems explicitly addressed in it.

Russia finds these understandings unpalatable. In late October, an Interfax report quoted the leader of the Duma’s international-affairs committee as planning “to suggest to committee members that they reconsider the ratification of the Russian-U.S. New START Treaty in view of new circumstances.” The new circumstances he cited were the three understandings adopted by the U.S. Senate committee.

Senator Lugar was an early advocate of the treaty; he didn’t propose these understandings with the intention of torpedoing it. Realistically, the treaty won’t be ratified without the understandings. The concerns reflected in them are predominant among Republicans, but a number of Democrats (and Independent Joe Lieberman) share them as well.

It’s not clear what Russia will do if New START is ratified with the U.S. Senate understandings. Medvedev and Putin might well consider it to their advantage to let a lengthy rejection process unfold in the Duma, rather than repudiating the Senate understandings immediately. But Obama’s abysmal record of obtaining difficult agreements makes it a virtual certainty that the treaty can’t be rescued for the purpose of actual arms limitation. The administration’s best option now is probably to accept the delay in Senate consideration and look for a way to revisit the treaty itself with Russia.