The New START treaty has obvious benefits for national security. But the overwhelming vote in favor of the treaty (71-26) has much broader significance. And the still sizable vote against it, a troubling dark side.
The case for the treaty is fairly simple. It reduces the number of Russian long-range nuclear weapons, restores inspections on the ground to monitor those that remain, and paves the way for stronger global action on the key threats of Iran, North Korea and nuclear terrorism.
As Michael Krepon of the Henry L. Stimson Center notes, arms control treaties are the "glue" that hold together the global non-proliferation system.
Reducing nuclear dangers requires top down leadership. If the two largest holders of nuclear weapons can't agree on structures, rules, and monitoring arrangements for arms reductions, all of the other rules governing nonproliferation become weaker.
That, in a nutshell, is why the treaty passed the Senate with a large, bipartisan majority and why it had the unequivocal support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former commanders of US nuclear forces, and almost every senior official who served in a national security cabinet position during the past seven administrations.
This level of support reaffirmed the broad consensus that our national interests are better served through global engagement, not global arrogance. International agreements, disparaged by the previous administration, are again seen as viable tools of security policy. A comprehensive approach to reducing nuclear threats has replaced nuclear whack-a-mole.
Most importantly, ratification furthers American's position as the leader of a community of nations rather than a true grit cowboy riding the range alone. It will be widely welcomed by our allies and friends around the world, including the 27 European Union foreign ministers who wrote last week, urging rapid approval of the pact.
But not everyone applauds the treaty's passage. There are bitter words from far-right groups. And 26 senators voted against the treaty, including the top leadership of the Republican Party, encouraged by most Republican presidential contenders.
There have always been those ideologically opposed to arms control. History has proved false the dire warnings and appeasement claims that greeted past treaties. Arms control has worked exactly as we said it would: we are safer, stronger and more respected in the world because of the negotiated reduction and control of these weapons. But facts matter little to ideologues. As Richard Lugar (R-IN) pointed out during the debate, some of his colleagues will never vote for an arms control treaty.
Of greater concern is that the current opposition seems tone deaf to the advice of respected military officers and conservative security experts. Gen. Brent Scowcroft said he was just "baffled" at senators' adamant opposition after calling them in support of the treaty. "To play politics with what is in the fundamental national interest," he said, "is pretty scary stuff."
That is the challenge going forward: how to depoliticize the new nuclear security agenda and translate the consensus that exists outside of Washington into policy formation inside Washington. Particularly as the Senate debate and related writing on the right reveal a counter-agenda that seems to include revival of a US-Russian rivalry, a push for military strikes on Iran, and maintaining huge nuclear arsenals indefinitely.
The New START ratification provides a model for how to prevail over these extreme views going forward. It starts with a determined President who reaches out to Republicans while asserting his own priorities. It includes the support of the uniformed military commanders who increasingly see nuclear weapons as a security liability, not an asset, and warn sternly about the consequences of starting a third war in the Middle East. It also requires bipartisan Senate leadership, such as that provided by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar in this recent battle.
Treaty supporters mobilized the broad, bipartisan security consensus and isolated the ideological and political opponents. Non-government organizations played a key role in organizing former Republican and Democratic officials in support, bringing in former senior military officials, encouraging citizens to phone and email their Senators, and working with Catholic, Protestant and Jewish groups in key states and nationally.
Senior administration officials have personally thanked the groups for the sustained campaign they ran for the treaty. "We couldn't have done it without you," they say. As one Senate staffer told us after the victory:
It was the best grassroots arms control campaign in a long time - and I truly believe that it made a difference. In particular, it neutralized the right-wing efforts in home states and gave us a level playing field in Washington.
This combination allowed a Democratic president for the first time in history to win approval of an arms reduction treaty he negotiated -- over strenuous objection of the Republican Senate leadership. In the end more than one quarter of the Republican caucus (13) choose the advice of the Joint Chiefs over the recommendations of Jon Kyl and John Bolton.
The nuclear policy battles ahead will be every bit as fierce as the START debate. But if this combination is kept intact, there will be likely be more victories like the one this week--victories that help turn us from the outdated threats and strategies of the last century and carry us forward to meet the challenges of the 21st.