New START, on the merits

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In his July 29 opinion piece, James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation takes issue with my support for the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia. But if one looks at the case for the treaty on the merits, his arguments against it are unpersuasive.

The agreement would reduce U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads by about one-third, to 1,550 each.  This is still enough for either side to destroy the other many times over, and would therefore dissuade either side from even considering a nuclear attack on the other.

In addition to what it would prevent, New START would also promote actions that would benefit U.S. and Russian security.

First, the treaty would put into place an effective, multi-layered verification system that would include satellite monitoring, information exchanges, and 18 annual onsite visits to key locations.  This verification system – which expired when the prior START agreement lapsed last December — would build confidence on both sides and make it easier to contemplate further reductions in a next round of talks.

Second, putting New START into place would make it easier to persuade other nations to reduce or eliminate their own nuclear arsenals. For this to happen, the U.S. and Russia – the countries that possess over 90% of the world’s 23,000 strategic nuclear weapons – need to show leadership in reducing these dangerous stockpiles. New START is an important step in that direction.

Finally, New START will make it easier to build strong international coalitions to take action towards curbing or eliminating the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.

These are daunting tasks, but New START will make it easier to achieve them.

So, what are the objections raised by Mr. Carafano and other critics of New START?  Aside from taking umbrage at my use of adjectives in a piece I wrote last May, Mr. Carafano is exercised about a few actual arguments.

By far the most substantive claim in Mr. Carafano’s piece – which is devoted almost entirely to complaining about my arguments (or, in some cases, about arguments he attributes to me through the use of quotations that are taken out of context) – has to do with the relationship between New START and missile defense.  Contrary to his view, there is no such linkage. The text of the treaty – the only part that is legally binding – puts no meaningful limits on missile defenses.  And while the preamble acknowledges that there is a link between defense and offense in the nuclear realm, this is a simple reality, not some sort of insidious effort to undermine current U.S. missile defense programs, which are focused almost exclusively on blunting the current or potential nuclear weapons of Iran and North Korea. This is true under the Obama administration, and it was true under the administration of George W. Bush – a fact that Carafano is unwilling to acknowledge.

As for whether there is a longer-term link between missile defense and offensive systems, Fred Kaplan of Slate made the point most clearly in a critique of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s ill-considered case against New START:

“This is arms control 101. If both sides drastically reduce their offensive weapons while one side greatly builds up its defensive weapons, then that side could (theoretically), launch a disarming first strike and, moments later, shoot down what’s left of the other side’s missiles as they’re fired in retaliation . . . Very small offensive forces, combined with very large defensive forces, erode deterrence and create a ‘destabilizing’ situation.”

It is this scenario, as unlikely as it may be, that motivated Russia to comment upon the relationship between offenses and defenses in the preamble to New START.

Furthermore, as Marc Ambinder notes in a recent piece on the web site of The Atlantic, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has testified that pursuit of a system that would thwart Russia’s deterrent is inadvisable in any case:

“Under the last administration, as well as under this one, it has been United States policy not to build a missile defense that would render useless Russia’s nuclear capabilities . . . That, in our view as well as theirs, would be enormously destabilizing, not to mention unbelievably expensive.”

To recap, there is no link between New START and missile defense. Future decisions on missile defense development and deployment will be made based upon strategic considerations at the time, not on this relatively modest but extremely important agreement.

New START will make us all safer, and it deserves to be ratified by the U.S. Senate. Attempts to link it to unrelated issues should not be allowed to change that fact.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation.