Ratify START

The new nuclear arms control treaty might not accomplish much, but it doesn’t hurt either

On April 8, 2010, Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, prompted by the expiry (and coming expiry) of previous nuclear weapons treaties, signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or “New START” for short. If ratified, New START will bind the U.S. and Russia to three important limits on strategic nuclear weapons for a duration of ten years:

Neither side shall have deployed more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads.

Neither side shall have, deployed or non-deployed, more than 800 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers, submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear weapons

Neither side shall have deployed more than 700 for ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear weapons.

Republican victories in the midterm elections have cast some doubt on whether the treaty will be ratified. It takes 67 yea votes to ratify a treaty in the U.S. Senate, and while nuclear arms control is not usually an objectionable issue, there is a small group of Republicans, led by Jon Kyl of Arizona, seeking to prevent the treaty’s passage.

For a long time, the liberal tendency toward moral casuistry and legal exegesis in foreign policy has grated against the powerful sense of nationalism felt by most Americans. There is the palpable sense that the left’s allegiance is split, that when the chips are on the table, they will value international institutions or idealistic codes more than U.S. national interests. We automatically trusted men like Eisenhower to keep the nation safe, but Kennedy had to rail about a non-existent “missile gap” to earn his commander-in-chief bona fides.

It was natural, therefore, that Obama would be weak on issues like START, and he did himself no favors when he followed up the signing with the claim that he wanted a nuclear free world — this sort of idealism is what has made America wary of left-wing foreign policy.

It also doesn’t help that the treaty itself has no eminently compelling reason for ratification. The weakness of the treaty’s verification mechanisms, and the lack of restriction on “undeployed” nuclear weapons defeats most of what it aims to achieve. START does vanishingly little to combat the real risk factors associated with today’s nuclear weapons, namely theft of nuclear material and proliferation. In fact, it may increase the risk: it takes the same number of guards, gates, and guns to secure a warehouse that holds 2000 warheads as it does to secure one that holds 1000, but the security risk from dismantling warheads — transporting them to distant facilities, monitoring the material as it is blended down into fuel, etc. — may dwarf the risk of protecting a static arsenal. Furthermore, the treaty’s savings from decreasing our maintenance costs on nuclear weapons are very tiny — likely on the order of $2 billion per year (though it is difficult to tell if Republicans care very much about this point given that Sen. Kyl is demanding $80 billion for an unnecessary “modernization” of our nuclear arsenal).

Ultimately however, none of these points are strong enough to justify opposing the treaty. So what if New START doesn’t accomplish much of anything — if nothing in the treaty is outright objectionable, why forego the opportunity to improve relations with Russia?

In the end, Republican opposition to the treaty is rooted in the Kahnian notion of “tragic but distinguishable postwar states.” Some of them still believe in the “winability” of a nuclear war, the idea that when the dust settles, having 100 million of your citizens still alive is a vastly better outcome than only having 10 million left alive, and that a stronger nuclear arsenal will make the difference between these two states.

From that perspective, the treaty is a terrible one for the United States. In particular, the limits on launching systems and heavy bombers are onerous; the U.S, unlike Russia, maintains a good number of these delivery systems for non-nuclear purposes, e.g. bombers that could drop nuclear weapons, but instead drop conventional ordinance. In this sense, the treaty is disadvantageous — it binds the U.S. more than it binds Russia.

More to the point, Russia is a developing country, with its GDP a mere fraction of the United States’. Knowing that Moscow cannot keep up, why shouldn’t we maintain a counterforce arsenal sufficient to ensure that if nuclear war ever did break out, we’d be the ones left with 100 million citizens alive, not 10 million?

The problem with “tragic but distinguishable postwar states” is that they really are not all that distinguishable as a matter of practice. The effort and concessions that a country will give to prevent 200 million of its citizens dying are functionally the same as what it would give to spare 290 million from death. Whether we develop the capability to save a hundred million of our own, or achieve the power to destroy another hundred million of our rivals does not make an appreciable difference in how well we may resist coercion or coerce others.

If START were a treaty on, say, naval warships instead of nuclear weapons, the Republican mentality might make sense. But the two are not the same. With warships, one can reliably avoid destruction by having more and better warships than one’s rival — with nuclear weapons, destruction can only be reliably avoided by navigating around the showdowns that lead to using nuclear weapons. If START helps warm things between us and Russia by even a little, it will make our country more secure.

New START is a modest treaty that will not accomplish much. But it is hardly the bogeyman than some Republicans are making it out to be. It should be ratified.