Next step after New Start

Our view: Now the U.S. and Russia must negotiate cuts in tactical nuclear weapons

December 30, 2010

The hurdles the Obama administration had to overcome in getting the New Start treaty ratified by the Senate this month could seem like child's play compared to what's ahead for the president as he seeks to implement the next phase of his arms control agenda. Where New Start built upon previous agreements aimed at reducing the overall number of U.S. and Russian long-range strategic nuclear weapons, future talks will focus on a trio of thorny issues — short-range tactical nukes, missile defense and a ban on underground nuclear testing — that have eluded arms control negotiators for decades.

Achieving progress on any of those fronts is likely to be further complicated by the larger Republican Senate minority in the next Congress. Even if President Barack Obama manages to strike a deal with Russia, he will still need to persuade at least 16 GOP senators to break ranks with their party and vote for ratification, as opposed to just the nine required for New Start. Rounding up that many GOP votes would be a challenge under any circumstances, but it will be especially difficult in the next Congress, given that Republicans themselves seem deeply divided over arms control.

Those divisions were already evident in the run-up to the vote on New Start, when half a dozen former GOP secretaries of state and defense whose views were shaped by the Cold War came out in support of the measure, only to see their pleas ignored by Republican Senate leaders who seemed more interested in the political advantages to be had from handing Mr. Obama a big foreign policy defeat than in the need to put verifiable controls on Russian nukes. Fortunately, the administration was able to win over enough moderate GOP senators to win the day, but as the Senate Republican caucus gets both larger and more ideologically polarized, Mr. Obama won't always be able to count on putting together such bipartisan coalitions.

Though some of the objections to New Start were based on substantive considerations, such as whether the Russians could be trusted even with the treaty's safeguards or whether U.S. missile defense programs would be crimped, the administration's biggest problem seemed to be persuading senators that the treaty was crucial to enlisting Russia's help in curbing the nuclear ambitions of rogue states like Iran and North Korea and politically unstable ones like Pakistan. That's where the most dangerous threats lie today, and both Moscow and Washington have an interest in preventing such states from becoming major proliferators.

But first they must put their own houses in order. Agreeing on caps for the number of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe will be far trickier than limiting strategic weapons because the Russians enjoy a huge numerical advantage over the U.S. in short-range missiles and bombs in Europe and likely will insist on cuts in the NATO arsenal that are politically unacceptable to Republicans even if a U.S. president were to agree to them. Similarly, the U.S. would resist any Russian proposal to scale back defense systems aimed at protecting Europe from Iranian missiles, and no U.S. president has ever been able to muster enough domestic support for a total ban on underground nuclear testing.

That's no reason not to press forward toward the ultimate goal of a nuclear-free world, however, a vision shared by every U.S. president since Harry S. Truman. Republicans who dismiss Mr. Obama's dream of nuclear disarmament as dangerous and impractical ought to remember that even Ronald Reagan, who was certainly under no illusion about the threat posed by the former Soviet Union, and who presided over one of the largest arms buildups in U.S. history in order to force its leaders to the bargaining table, was adamant in his insistence that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought," and that "we must never stop at all until we see the day when nuclear weapons have been banished form the face of this earth." No matter how great the obstacles may seem, the U.S. and Russia have no choice but to pursue that vision until it becomes reality, because the alternatives are simply too terrible to contemplate.

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