Commentary Magazine


Re: New START Treaty: Why It’s Not Much Ado About Nothing

Max, everything you say about the START treaty is sensible but one thing, and it’s the big thing. Treaties should not be entered into, or agreed to, or voted on, for reasons extraneous to the terms of the treaty itself. Which is to say: You don’t sign a binding treaty with a sovereign power governing your own conduct on military matters for decades to come because in doing so you might be able to get the other sovereign power to do something else you want. Getting the other sovereign power to do something you want is precisely what a treaty  is for — if there’s a quid pro quo for signing the treaty, it needs to be in the treaty itself or it doesn’t count. (That includes a promise from the administration to Republican senators to agree to spend money on nuclear modernization. That might happen or might not happen; the signing of the treaty is immaterial. And this shouldn’t be a bargaining chip in any case. If money is needed for nuclear modernization, Obama would be acting directly against the national interest to fail to agree to it out of pique that his treaty wasn’t properly supported. And for acting out of pique, he would be handing his opponents an issue against him.)

You don’t support a treaty for goodwill reasons. You don’t do it for conceptual reasons. It is binding law, and its imposition extends too far into the future for such trivialities. It cannot be overturned by a simple vote of the next Congress.

Nor should Republicans in the Senate vote to support it because, as Bob Kagan says, they will be accused of obstructionism if they don’t. That’s a terrible reason to sign a treaty. They should do it if they are convinced it is in the national interest. Because they are so powerful, treaties require exactly this sort of high-minded approach. That it won’t necessarily do any harm and who the hell knows, it might do a little good isn’t a good enough reason to sign a treaty — any treaty.

The best thing that can be said about this treaty is that it is basically unnecessary. The worst thing is that we are creating a parallelism between American strength and Russian strength that is a very, very bad precedent in terms of how we ourselves think about American power.

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