Ratify the New START treaty -- but wait until January to do it

Reaching agreement on the New START treaty should not be difficult. With proper conditions, New START protects US national interests and shouldn't be rushed through a lame-duck Senate session, but taken up in full daylight when the new senators take their seats in January.

The "New START" treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) now under consideration in the US Senate serves US national security interests and should be ratified, provided three conditions are met. Congress and the administration should:

• agree on a program for modernization of US nuclear forces to ensure maximum safety, effectiveness, and reliability;

• reach a clear understanding that nothing in the treaty limits US missile defense efforts, and agree on a program of continued development of missile defenses, including in Europe to cover the territory of all NATO allies; and

• agree that there will be no unilateral US withdrawal of the small number of remaining US nuclear weapons from Europe, and that there will be no further nuclear treaties submitted to the Senate for ratification, until we have addressed the problem of the thousands of Russian tactical nuclear weapons based on the borders of Europe.

These conditions are already factors in administration thinking, and reaching agreement on them between the administration and Congress should not prove too difficult a task. Doing so would make the treaty’s other modest but real benefits – a cap on US and Russian warheads, information exchanges, on-site inspections, etc. – well worth achieving.

What New START will and won't do

This argument in favor of ratification, under the right conditions, is a hard-headed assessment of US national interests – just as Russia has made its own hard-headed assessment of its own national interests in obtaining a limit on total numbers of US strategic nuclear warheads.

By contrast, this argument is in no way premised on buying good behavior from Russia. The suggestion made by some, that failure to ratify the New START treaty would endanger the “reset” in US-Russia relations is faulty on a number of grounds.

For another view: Senate must ratify new START agreement on nuclear arms

US-Russia 'reset' isn't a factor

First, this argument is based on the view that the reset policy has produced significant results – i.e., that Russia has changed its behavior or policies as a result of a new tone coming from Washington. This view is subject to considerable debate.

The examples cited in favor of this position – the New START Treaty itself, military transits to Afghanistan, and support for a UN sanctions resolution on Iran – are areas where progress was already made under the Bush administration, before any “reset,” and where Russia itself has argued that it is acting purely in its own interest, not in response to any US overtures.

Deteriorating democracy in Russia

Meanwhile, examples of troubling trends within Russia continue, and arguably have become worse.

Take for example the mysterious beatings of journalists (one of whom, still bandaged, was then indicted for slander); significant reduction in press and political freedoms; and continued kangaroo court imprisonment of former business magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Look at the continued occupation of parts of Georgia, while recognizing those territories as independent states; continued failure to implement the terms of the EU-negotiated ceasefire agreement in Georgia; assertive efforts to build a “sphere of influence” in neighboring states; and continuing refusal to implement the CFE Treaty (Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe) – a legal obligation. Other examples abound.

Misguided arguments for ratification

Second, the argument that failure to ratify would endanger the reset policy is essentially an argument that Russia is blackmailing the United States: that it is poised to resume destructive behavior unless the US does what it wishes and ratifies the treaty. I doubt that this is true, but regardless of merit, it is certainly no argument to make to a United States senator.

Third, and most importantly as a matter of principle, the United States should not enter into treaties in order to encourage good behavior, or dis-incentivize bad behavior. Treaties are solemn legal commitments entered into by two sides when they have judged that doing so serves their core national interests – nothing more, nothing less.

Why the rush in the lame-duck session?

A strong case can be made that the New START agreement, with appropriate conditions ironed out between Congress and the administration, passes this test. But in our constitutional system, this judgment needs to be reached by the Senate of the United States, not a mere former ambassador like me.

And in reaching such a judgment, the Senate should move ahead in sober, above-the-board proceedings. A rush to ratify in a lame-duck session, before senators newly elected by the American people first take their seats, gives the impression of sneaking the treaty in under the wire. It is bad optics – as if the case for ratification is so weak that one must cram it through before the peoples’ new representatives have a chance to vote. That is a position of weakness unfit for the ratification of a major treaty binding the United States of America.

Rather, if the agreement, with appropriate conditions, indeed serves US national interests – and I believe it does – then it should be approved in full daylight by the Senate that takes its seats in January 2011.

Kurt Volker is a former US ambassador to NATO. He is now senior fellow and managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a senior advisor at McLarty Associates.

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