Senate ratifies New START treaty – but what does it mean?

Andrew Gibson looks at what the New START treaty - the nuclear weapons treaty between the United States and Russia - means in practice.

Whilst most of you were busy enjoying yourself at Christmas parties, the Obama administration were hard at work. New START, a mutual arms reduction treaty between Russia and the United States, was ratified on the Senate floor over the holidays. It followed weeks of deal-making with and stalling from a number of key Republicans, including Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl and former Presidential candidate Senator John McCain.

As reported last month in Left Foot Forward, senior Democrats had pushed for the vote to be held in the December ‘lame duck’ period before new Senators from the mid-term elections assume office. The wisdom of this approach is now clear: if the vote was repeated this month and the handful of new Republicans voted negatively, New START would have passed by just one.

Treaties require a two-thirds Senate majority in U.S. law, which New START achieved with the support of 13 Republicans and two Independents (five more non-Democrats than needed). However, if the vote was held today, the support of at least 14 non-Democrats would be the required.

President Obama claimed that the productivity of the recent ‘lame duck’ session proves the US political process is not doomed to ‘endless gridlock’. In light of the new arithmetic, this seems premature.

Nonetheless, New START is an important achievement. It is on its way to being ratified in the Russian Federal Assembly, strengthens the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, enhances security and makes space for progress on a diverse range of arms control issues, something the Democrats appear fairly serious about.

What does New START do?

• Seven years after entry into force, New START limits deployed strategic nuclear warheads and bombs to 1,550 each, down approximately 30 per cent from the 2,200 limit set by the SORT treaty in 2003.

• Deployed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers assigned to nuclear missions are limited to 700. Deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and bombers are limited to 800. This is approximately a 50 per cent reduction from the 1,600 launcher limit set under the original START treaty (SORT did not cover launchers).

• It establishes an updated system of information exchanges and enhanced inspections. It allows 18 on-site inspections per year, including direct monitoring of Russian and US nuclear warheads. Russia must notify the US 48 hours before any new ICMBs leave the Votkinsk missile production plant, which will facilitate monitoring by ‘technical means’ (i.e. satellites).

• Whilst New START does not limit the number of non-deployed ICBMs and SLBMs, it does monitor them and provide for continuous information on their locations and on-site inspections to confirm they are not added to the deployed force.

Why is it positive?

The treaty’s requirements make the world safer. Reductions in the number of deployed warheads decreases the chance of accident or theft. The inspections regime is a fine calibration of trust and verification, institutionalising predicability, balance and relative transparency between the two largest nuclear powers. Putting aside east-west balance, there are unilateral reasons for reducing the number of deployed warheads: nuclear weapons are unsanitary and their safe management a nuisance. New START allows the two states to reduce and manage their stockpiles without any sense of strategic disadvantage.

New START strengthens the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime. The NPT is essentially a deal between signatories with declared nuclear weapons (the P5) and the non-weapon state signatories: the latter are allowed to develop and share nuclear technology for energy purposes only, as long as the former act responsibly and eventually disarm. Article VI of the NPT obligates the P5 to pursue…

“… negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

By advocating global disarmament and taking small steps in that direction, the US and Russia are signalling to the non-weapon signatories that they are willing to keep their side of the bargain. This is important for the legitimacy of the NPT and IAEA inspections and to deflect claims of hypocrisy if NPT enforcement operations must occur.

New START helps build momentum. This treaty and Obama’s nuclear security summit in April are positive restatements of American leadership in disarmament issues, after the uniquely stupid Bush years. Just as the signing of New START by Obama and Medvedev last April set the scene for a productive NPT Review Conference in May, its ratification will add momentum to efforts to ratify the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty this year (a stated goal of the Obama administration). It may, there are rumours, act as a model for negotiations on tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

What can ratification tell us about US politics?

The international consensus for Obama’s nuclear agenda is not mirrored at home. Whilst New START has been praised as a victory for Democrats by some and bipartisanship by others, its passage was uncertain and achieved at great compromise. In particular, Senator Kyl played an expensive game of demanding more and more funding for ‘modernisation’ of nuclear facilities in return for his support and perceived influence.

Despite getting everything he asked (including $85 billion on modernisation over the next decade), he voted against New START and was a perpetual headache. As a whole though, Senate Republicans were split. Some influential figures, like Senator Dick Lugar, openly defied the Whip, appeared to genuinely believe in New START and facilitated its passage accordingly.

This era of relative bipartisanship is, however, over. The Democrats now only hold the Senate by a slim majority (53-47) and have lost the House of Representatives: the former will hamper treaty-making, the latter will make passing controversial domestic legislation virtually impossible.

There was also evidence over the last few months that Tea-Party and more conservative elements of the GOP were attempting to pressure moderate Republicans. The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, mass mailed constituents of moderate Republicans (as well as Democrats in conservative states) arguing that New START would somehow aid ‘rogue states’.

Not only are new Republican Senators generally more conservative but there is an awareness that the Tea-Party are prepared to take on the party establishment. For example, John McCain has moved to the right on a number of issues, after being significantly challenged by the Tea Party candidate JD Hayworth in the Arizona Senate primaries. At one point during the New START negotiations, Senator Kyl subtly linked demands for tax breaks for the rich with his willingness to move on the arms treaty. The new arithmetic of Congress will make this sort of thing more likely.

Despite all of this, the lame duck period was a success for the Democrats. Tax breaks for lower and middle income families (done at a compromise), repeal of the homophobic ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ laws in the military and a new arms control treaty with Russia: a fairly tidy list of achievements.

Senator Kyl (who, incidentally, was pivotal in killing ratification of the CTBT in 1999) was ignored by a significant number of Republicans, despite almost a year’s worth of negotiations on their behalf with the administration. It is also unclear how far domestic deadlock will transfer to Obama’s nuclear agenda. A number of major Republicans and GOP elder statesmen (such as Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger) favour Obama’s approach and the US can still play a role in securing stockpiles and verifying tests, whether or not treaties are involved.

Despite winning a Nobel Peace Prize at 48 years old, Obama’s foreign policy has been a mixed bag. A low point has been the repeated violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, a high was the negotiation and ratification of New START. Last month’s vote will inspire some confidence internationally that Obama’s signature means something. However, domestic opponents are now better positioned to challenge his authority.

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