Commentary Magazine


Topic: New START

Treaty Cheating: The New START Precedent

Whether President Obama can be trusted to compel Iranian compliance with the naïve nuclear deal struck in November is a recurring question. The president has shown a stern unwillingness to face reality and admit that critics of his diplomatic dealmaking are right even when they clearly are. Just as troubling, however, has been the precedent set by the Russian-brokered deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad appears to be flat ignoring his deadlines and obligations, with no apparent consequences.

Yet in January, the New York Times had reported that Syria might have been merely following the example set by Russia itself: “The United States informed its NATO allies this month that Russia had tested a new ground-launched cruise missile, raising concerns about Moscow’s compliance with a landmark arms control accord.” Now those alleged Russian violations, which some believe began in 2008, are hanging over one of President Obama’s top defense nominees.

The Senate Armed Services Committee was scheduled to consider the nomination of Brian McKeon to an undersecretary of defense posting today. It’s not an otherwise particularly controversial nomination except that McKeon is currently National Security Council chief of staff, and two members of the committee think McKeon has some explaining to do regarding Russia’s possible treaty violations. As National Journal reported heading into the weekend:

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Whether President Obama can be trusted to compel Iranian compliance with the naïve nuclear deal struck in November is a recurring question. The president has shown a stern unwillingness to face reality and admit that critics of his diplomatic dealmaking are right even when they clearly are. Just as troubling, however, has been the precedent set by the Russian-brokered deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad appears to be flat ignoring his deadlines and obligations, with no apparent consequences.

Yet in January, the New York Times had reported that Syria might have been merely following the example set by Russia itself: “The United States informed its NATO allies this month that Russia had tested a new ground-launched cruise missile, raising concerns about Moscow’s compliance with a landmark arms control accord.” Now those alleged Russian violations, which some believe began in 2008, are hanging over one of President Obama’s top defense nominees.

The Senate Armed Services Committee was scheduled to consider the nomination of Brian McKeon to an undersecretary of defense posting today. It’s not an otherwise particularly controversial nomination except that McKeon is currently National Security Council chief of staff, and two members of the committee think McKeon has some explaining to do regarding Russia’s possible treaty violations. As National Journal reported heading into the weekend:

The Obama administration recently acknowledged having concerns that Russia is in breach of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, though it has yet to formally accuse Moscow of any violation. The apparent source of concern is Russian testing of a new ground-launched cruise missile, dating back to 2008. The agreement prohibits Russia and the United States from producing, stockpiling or testing any cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles.

In their letter, Senate Armed Services Committee members Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) demanded to know whether McKeon was aware of the alleged treaty breach at the time when he was acting as a key White House representative on Capitol Hill during the push to secure Senate ratification of the New START treaty, according to the news publication.

“Based on your role as Vice President [Joe] Biden’s lead negotiator on the New START treaty and as one of the Obama administration’s primary liaisons with the Senate during the New START ratification process, we are interested in what you knew about potential violations of the INF treaty and what information was shared with the Senate,” the two senators said.

Wicker and Ayotte also want answers on why it took the Obama administration so many years to update Congress on its concerns about possible treaty transgressions by Moscow.

“If the administration knew about potential violations during consideration of the treaty and did not fully inform the Senate of these violations while it debated New START, this would represent a serious abrogation of the administration’s responsibilities,” states the letter, which was viewed by the Daily Beast.

New START was, from the beginning, a puzzling distraction from much more important nonproliferation issues. But the Obama administration, true to form, was substituting public relations for public policy. The president wanted to show that the two countries were resetting relations, and the deal, while otherwise useless, served the administration’s purposes.

New START looks even less promising in the rearview mirror, once the “reset” had completely crumbled and Vladimir Putin had thoroughly humiliated the president on the world stage. But even at the time it was both shallow and a foolish expenditure of political capital. But the legacy of New START changes in important ways if the president can’t claim to have been naively duped by Putin and if, instead, a top American negotiator pushed the treaty through with the knowledge that the Russians were simultaneously violating past arms agreements and therefore unlikely to comply with this one.

McKeon’s nomination aside, the issue goes to the heart of the concern over far more important agreements, like the Syria chemical-weapons deal and above all the Iranian nuclear deal. The hope has been that while Obama is being desperately out-negotiated by rogue regimes, if they don’t comply with those deals the White House will acknowledge so and act accordingly. That goes not just for Iran but for companies who enable Iran to violate sanctions. “We will come down on them like a ton of bricks,” Obama threatened recently.

But history shows that the president is, at times, more concerned with signing deals than with ensuring the intended outcome of those deals. The questions surrounding Brian McKeon and New START raise the possibility that the president’s critics are more on-target than even they thought.

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Why the Chill in U.S.-Russia Relations Matters

One of the most common mistakes made by American “realist” analysts with regard to Russia is, in the words of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Lilia Shevtsova, that they have too often “accepted the Kremlin interpretation of Russia’s national interests.” It is not Vladimir Putin, she said, but the Russian society he disregards that shares values and interests with the West. Russians want openness, an independent judiciary, and cultural ties to the West: “That in turn requires America and the West as a whole to take a values-based approach to Russia.”

Shevtsova was commenting after the Obama administration announced its “reset” and specifically on the report of a commission on the “right direction” for U.S.-Russia policy, co-chaired by Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel, the latter going through his confirmation hearings for defense secretary today. The disparity between Putin’s interests and those of the Russian people is in part why Putin has pulled back on so many forms of mutual cooperation. It is easy–and partially accurate–to see Putin’s adoption ban as retaliation for the American human rights legislation, the Magnitsky Act. But the adoption ban was preceded by Putin’s decision to expel USAID and end cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction, and it was followed by the expansion of the Guantanamo list banning about 70 Americans from Russia and ending a joint U.S.-Russian project on crime prevention.

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One of the most common mistakes made by American “realist” analysts with regard to Russia is, in the words of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Lilia Shevtsova, that they have too often “accepted the Kremlin interpretation of Russia’s national interests.” It is not Vladimir Putin, she said, but the Russian society he disregards that shares values and interests with the West. Russians want openness, an independent judiciary, and cultural ties to the West: “That in turn requires America and the West as a whole to take a values-based approach to Russia.”

Shevtsova was commenting after the Obama administration announced its “reset” and specifically on the report of a commission on the “right direction” for U.S.-Russia policy, co-chaired by Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel, the latter going through his confirmation hearings for defense secretary today. The disparity between Putin’s interests and those of the Russian people is in part why Putin has pulled back on so many forms of mutual cooperation. It is easy–and partially accurate–to see Putin’s adoption ban as retaliation for the American human rights legislation, the Magnitsky Act. But the adoption ban was preceded by Putin’s decision to expel USAID and end cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction, and it was followed by the expansion of the Guantanamo list banning about 70 Americans from Russia and ending a joint U.S.-Russian project on crime prevention.

The disparity is also why respected economists and analysts like Nouriel Roubini and Ian Bremmer have advocated strong civil society cooperation and communication between the U.S. and the pro-democracy and pro-modernization members of the Russian public–something the administration may set back by pulling out of one such group in response to Putin’s actions–and why it matters that U.S.-Russia cooperation is at a post-Cold War low. In their study of 35 hybrid regimes between the end of the Cold War and 2008, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way conclude:

Where linkage to the West was high, competitive authoritarian regimes democratized. Where linkage was low, regime outcomes hinged on incumbents’ organizational power. Where state and governing party structure were well organized and cohesive, regimes remained stable and authoritarian; where they were underdeveloped or lacked cohesion, regimes were unstable, although they rarely democratized.

All of which makes the Obama administration’s decision, as reported by Josh Rogin, to focus its attempt to reset the “reset” on reducing nuclear stockpiles–a replay of the early stages of the first failed reset–all the more baffling. Russian nukes aren’t being aimed with a finger on the trigger at the U.S.; they are a relic of a bygone era and a symbol of great power status.

Additionally, why follow a failed game plan? New START was supposed to be a largely symbolic opening to more advantageous U.S.-Russia cooperation on real threats to nuclear nonproliferation, such as Iran, that never materialized. Putin’s support for Bashar al-Assad and his crackdown on pro-democracy activists and protesters are just more evidence that “reset” skeptics like Shevtsova, who wrote “that we must tie foreign policy to Russia’s domestic development, not untie it,” were right on the mark.

There are nations whose existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons remain of great concern, like Pakistan and North Korea. There are rising would-be great powers expanding their existing nuclear forces, like China. And there are unstable or violent, anti-Western regimes seeking to join the nuclear club, like Iran and Syria. The focus on Russia’s weapons seems like a distraction. More importantly, the one benefit to President Obama’s obsession with offering unrequited concessions and a carrot-only engagement strategy was that when it failed he would have the credibility to change direction. The president may count these symbolic agreements as accomplishments, but they will more likely stand as a testament to his missed opportunities.

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Missing the Point On Arms Control

Over the last several weeks, Rose Gottemoeller, the Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, has given speeches in Stockholm and Helsinki that, while focusing on Europe, set out the administration’s broader philosophy on arms control and verification.

This philosophy is profoundly misguided. It proceeds from the erroneous premise that arms control increases U.S. security by reducing arms all around, including (or perhaps especially) on the U.S. side. That premise, in turn, rests on the assumption that the world will be safer if democracies are no better armed than autocracies, and that the problems of security derive from arms, not from the nature of the regime that has them. In reality, arms control, even at its best, aims only at the symptoms of the problem — which is political — and it can easily damage U.S. security by reducing our ability to protect and defend ourselves and our allies.

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Over the last several weeks, Rose Gottemoeller, the Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, has given speeches in Stockholm and Helsinki that, while focusing on Europe, set out the administration’s broader philosophy on arms control and verification.

This philosophy is profoundly misguided. It proceeds from the erroneous premise that arms control increases U.S. security by reducing arms all around, including (or perhaps especially) on the U.S. side. That premise, in turn, rests on the assumption that the world will be safer if democracies are no better armed than autocracies, and that the problems of security derive from arms, not from the nature of the regime that has them. In reality, arms control, even at its best, aims only at the symptoms of the problem — which is political — and it can easily damage U.S. security by reducing our ability to protect and defend ourselves and our allies.

Gottemoeller claims that, in the New START Resolution of Ratification, the Senate “placed a priority on seeking to initiate new negotiations with the Russians on nonstrategic nuclear weapons.” As a result, she says, NATO “has indicated that it is prepared to consider further reducing its requirement for nonstrategic nuclear weapons . . . in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia.” She implies that the Senate called for reductions in the U.S. tactical stockpile. It did not. The Resolution calls for “an agreement . . . that would address the disparity between the tactical nuclear weapons stockpiles of the Russian Federation and of the United States.”

In other words, the Senate wanted an agreement that would reduce Russian stockpiles, not U.S. inventories. This revealing misstatement demonstrates just how eager the administration is to press ahead with further negotiations, even after Russia in 2007 suspended adherence to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. The U.S. did not acknowledge this breach until 2011, and even today, the U.S. continues to implement the Treaty voluntarily, except for the provisions that pertain to Russia specifically.

That raises the broader problem of compliance and verification, which Gottemoeller addressed in Helsinki. This was avowedly a “think piece,” and it is not inherently bad for officials to think outside the box. But in this case, the administration needs — as my colleague Baker Spring implies in a recent review of its unfocused approach to compliance — to get back in the box and pull the lid on tight. Gottemoeller’s remarks focused on the idea that arms control agreements could be verified by the public, either via social networks or distributed sensors in smartphones.

It is hard to believe that Gottemoeller has thought this through. What she is proposing is the application of the same “civil society verification” model to arms control that has distorted human rights treaties and turned them into sticks that NGOs and dictatorships use to beat up the U.S. In the arms control realm, this approach would lead to even more vigorous repression in totalitarian societies. It would also provide a ready-made justification of leaks from the U.S. — paging Bradley Manning — on the ground that the leaker was participating in a public verification exercise. It amounts to a partial outsourcing of verification, which, “when necessary,” can be partially funded by governments but where many costs will be born by others.

And that is what is most troubling of all about Gottemoeller’s remarks: they are shot through with remarks about budgetary problems. Implementation of the Open Skies Treaty is subject to “budgetary constraints.” Verification of the Vienna Document must not “impose unreasonable expenses.” Finally — and worst of all — arms control can help the U.S. “to spend our stretched defense budgets wisely.” Wrong! Arms control has no necessary connection to defense spending, because arms control addresses systems or regions, whereas the defense budget must take all security challenges into account. And if the U.S. is unwilling to spend the money necessary to verify arms control agreements, it should not enter into those agreements in the first place, because without verification, the limits they place on the U.S. run the risk of being completely one-sided.

Gottemoeller’s remarks demonstrate that the administration: is more interested in getting treaties than in verifying them; understands arms control as, in part, an exercise in the control of U.S. defense spending; and views U.S. and allied armaments as part of the security problem to be addressed via these treaties. These are all fundamental errors. Congress should demand a more serious treatment of U.S. arms control and verification efforts. It is obvious that this Administration has no intention of providing one on its own.

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