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One Senate Vote Has Broad International Implications
January 2011

Media coverage of last month’s vote by the US Senate to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia focused on President Obama’s political victories in the post-election weeks of a lame duck Congress. This kind of who’s-up, who’s-down scorekeeping is ever-changing, but the ratification itself has lasting significance for nuclear nonproliferation and international cooperation more broadly.

New START is the latest in a series of bilateral agreements—tracing back to before the breakup of the Soviet Union—limiting numbers of long-range missiles, strategic bomber aircraft, and the nuclear weapons they carry. As the Cold War has become a matter for the history books, the standoff between US and Russian nuclear forces is no longer the source of worry that it once was. Even so, the legacy of the nuclear arms race leaves the two countries with thousands of nuclear weapons (and tons of material for making bombs). The New START ceiling of a combined 3,100 deployed strategic warheads hardly qualifies as skeleton forces, but it is a far cry from the Cold War-peak of more than 25,000.

As a general matter, the key point is for countries with nuclear weapons to reduce their arsenals—both to reduce the risk of the devices falling into terrorist hands and to preserve their own credibility on matters of nuclear nonproliferation. Since the United States and Russia possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arms, they have a special responsibility to make reductions. The 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s (NPT) key provisions represent a grand bargain—nations that did not have nuclear weapons would forswear them if nations already possessing nuclear arsenals would ultimately disarm. Nations without nuclear weapons would also get assistance with the technology’s civilian uses, like energy or medicine, assuming they walled these activities off from possible military uses.

The NPT grand bargain has always been a delicate arrangement, and it has started to fray in recent years. The requirement for countries with nuclear weapons to disarm was left vague and open-ended, in contrast to the firm and explicit obligations of the have-nots. Given the modest disarmament steps by the haves and the passage of four decades (two since the Cold War’s end), the perceived failure to live up to their end of the bargain has fueled impatience with the countries that have kept thousands of weapons for themselves. In other words, the lack of arms reductions has made it harder to mount pressure on new nuclear weapons-possessing nations like North Korea or would-be proliferators like Iran.

These were the underlying stakes for the debate over New START in the Senate. Even beyond the context of nuclear nonproliferation, the debate raised doubts in the rest of the world about the ability of the US political system to ratify any treaty—and about the country’s basic capacity to make commitments to the world community. And the stakes could hardly have been higher for the ongoing effort to keep pressure on Iran over its nuclear activities. Aside from the issue of the NPT’s double standard, the newfound support from Moscow for sanctions has been the lynchpin of recent successes in keeping the heat on Iran diplomatically. Snubbing Russia by rejecting New START could have unraveled the broad international support for using sanctions to pressure Iran. Thankfully, the Senate vote for ratification of the treaty means not having to revisit the cooperative strategy for preventing a nuclear armed Iran.

David Shorr


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