In April 2009, President Obama went to Prague and spoke out for a world free of nuclear weapons.  “I state clearly and with conviction,” he said, “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”  He indicated that he was prepared to take necessary steps to advance this cause.  In order “to reduce our warheads and stockpiles,” he promised to negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians during the year.  This treaty, known as New START, took longer than anticipated to negotiate and was signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev on April 8, 2010.  The next month, the treaty was submitted to the Senate for ratification.

While the agreement was being negotiated, the first START agreement expired, ending the provisions for verification between the US and Russia.  Since December 2009, there have been no verification procedures in place for conducting inspections of the other side’s nuclear arsenal.  This is a gap that many analysts have noted badly needs filling.  It is one of the principal arguments in favor of ratification.  Beyond this, though, failure to ratify would be a serious setback in US-Russian relations, and would indicate that further progress on nuclear disarmament is stalled and unlikely to proceed.

The principal provisions of the new treaty would lower the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads on each side to 1,550 (down about a third from current requirements under the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty) and the number of deployed delivery vehicles to 700.  There are some nuances to the counting that affect the final numbers, such as counting each bomber as one nuclear warhead despite the fact that each bomber could carry up to 24 warheads.  The Russians also expressed concerns over US plans to continue to deploy missile defenses in Europe, which the Russians believe affect the strategic balance between the two countries in a manner unfavorable to them.  They indicated that, at some point, US deployment of missile defenses could cause them to withdraw from the treaty.  

A number of conservatives in the US, including Senator Jim DeMint, have expressed the view that the Russian position opposing deployment of US missile defenses should not constrain the US missile defense program.  Others, including Senator Jon Kyl, have taken the position that the US should devote more resources over the next ten years to modernizing the nuclear arsenal and infrastructure and the means for delivery of nuclear weapons.  President Obama has sought to head off these concerns preemptively by committing to $80 billion for modernizing nuclear weapons over the next ten years and $100 billion for improving nuclear weapons delivery systems.  These funds will be added to the more than $50 billion annually already committed to supporting the US nuclear arsenal, a larger amount than during the Cold War.  

The US nuclear modernization program will increase our capacity to produce new nuclear weapons and will send a message to the world that the US continues to rely upon its nuclear arsenal for security. Even with this extra $180 billion commitment, some conservatives are unlikely to ever be satisfied with the treaty.  John Bolton, a former US Ambassador to the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration, has called New START “unilateral disarmament.”  He has worried publicly that the agreement “will severely limit our small-war capabilities.”

Against this background, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 16, 2010 voted 14 to 4 in favor of sending the New START agreement to the full Senate for debate.  The majority included three Republicans, more than was expected.  Does this bode well for Senate ratification of the treaty?  This remains unclear.  It suggests, though, that all Republicans will not vote as a block against ratification, which would sink the treaty.  Senator Richard Lugar showed leadership, along with Senator John Kerry, in pushing the treaty to the Senate floor.  Their joint leadership, along with that of President Obama, will remain important in seeking the 67 votes needed for the treaty’s ratification.  

Failure to ratify would be a major setback not only for the Obama administration, but also for the prospects of achieving President Obama’s vision, and that of many other committed leaders, of a world without nuclear weapons.  Failure to ratify the New START agreement would diminish the prospects for a future free of nuclear catastrophe and even of a human future.  The promise of continuing to modernize the US nuclear arsenal has already been pledged as a price extracted for Senate ratification.  If this price is paid and there is no Senate ratification, it would signal the worst of all possible outcomes for those who seek an end to the nuclear weapons threat to humanity.