START treaty: Mullen delivers tough speech on nuclear weapons agreement

In a speech, Adm. Mike Mullen reiterated his support for the 'New START' agreement with Russia. Senior US military officials fear the nuclear weapons agreement is faltering in Congress.

Nick Ut/AP
Chairman of the Joint chiefs of staff Admiral Mike Mullen spoke during the Veterans Day Mission service at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus in Los Angeles, on Nov. 11. In a speech, Mullen reiterated his support for the 'New START' agreement with Russia, which he called 'essential' to America’s future security.

Two decades after the cold war, and nearly one decade into the war in Afghanistan, America has largely forgotten about nuclear deterrence, worries the nation’s top military officer.

In one of his strongest statements on the subject, Adm. Mike Mullen reiterated his support for the “New START” agreement with Russia, which he called “essential” to America’s future security – and which senior US military officials fear is faltering in Congress.

He warned, too, of China’s nuclear ambitions, and he floated the idea that “Russian adherence to date to the tenets of the new START indicates acceptance of our current and future missile-defense plans, despite public conjecture to the contrary in both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres.”

The subject of missile defense has been a sensitive one with Russian counterparts, says Rose Gottemoeller, assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance. This has remained the case, Ms. Gottemoeller says, even as she has repeatedly reminded her Russian counterparts of statements from President Obama and Russian President Medvedev acknowledging that negotiations around a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty would include strategic offensive nuclear weapons.

“Did that shut the Russians up? No,” Gottemoeller said in a September discussion with the Center for Media and Security in Washington. “I would have been surprised if we didn’t hear about missile defenses from the Russians.... But that aside, there is absolutely nothing in this [new START] treaty that will affect our ability in the future to develop, build, and deploy missiles.”

That appeared to be an effort to address concerns among some Republican members of Congress about the new START agreement.

Mullen, for his part, has sought to do the same.

“They say this gives the Russians what they want: no serious effort by the United States to develop and field such systems,” Mullen argued last Friday before an audience that included Henry Kissinger at the Hoover Institution’s conference on deterrence in Stanford, Calif. “There is nothing in the treaty that prohibits us from developing any kind of missile defense.”

Deterrence is more complicated today than it was at the height of the cold war, given that “more than one nation can now reach out and touch us with nuclear missiles,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. It is a danger compounded by potential terrorist attacks, he added, and “an unfortunately increasing number of nuclear-armed actors.”

National-security experts who made the field their specialty back in the 1980s are gone, Mullen noted at the conference. “We have not worked very hard to find their replacements,” he said. “We don’t have anybody in our military that does that anymore.”

He went on, “It’s as if we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Soviet Union collapsed and said to ourselves, ‘Well, I guess we don’t need to worry about that anymore.’ ”

Not so, he said: “We were dead wrong.”

In preparing the speech, Mullen went through several drafts to try to set an increasingly muscular tone on the importance of the new START agreement, as well as the need for more military attention to nuclear deterrence. (The original speech read, “We were wrong,” rather than “dead wrong.”)

On the heels of a trip through the Pacific to emphasize the strategic importance of the region to the US, Mullen called China “a rising nuclear power.”

He said, “The greatest lesson I think we can apply from our experiences with Russia to China is that, in the realm of nuclear arms, transparency of strategy and clarity of intent – issues which have concerned me about China specifically – go a long way toward promoting stability.”

Iran remains a concern, Mullen added. “I remain somewhat hopeful that the diplomatic and economic levers being applied to the Iranian regime” will work, he said. (Mullen tempered an earlier version of his speech, which read “hopeful,” to “somewhat hopeful.”) While “the sanctions are beginning to bite,” he said, “thus far, I have seen no retrenchment from their declared path of nuclear weaponization.”

Congress passed the previous START accord in 1992 by a vote of 93 to 5, Obama administration officials point out. "So it's been a tradition that we've had bipartisan support for these kinds of treaties," Gottemoeller said. "The reason is that they are profoundly in the national interest of the United States."

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