As the fallout over health reform continues to capture national attention, President Obama stepped onto the international stage today to sign a major nuclear weapons treaty with Russia. Although the Cold War is over and far from our minds, its nuclear weapons remain. The treaty, dubbed "New START," marks the beginning of an American push to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, prevent accidental nuclear war, and keep nuclear bombs from falling into terrorist hands. And just like health care, it's been a long time coming.
A year ago, President Obama threw his diplomatic muscle behind a new strategy to reduce nuclear threats by committing the U.S. to the goal of eliminating global nuclear arsenals and to a series of policy steps to move in that direction. As the two countries holding 96% of the world's nuclear weapons, Russia and the U.S. must lead. The President's approach -- a vision for the future and concrete steps to get there -- will give the U.S. the credibility it needs to convince other "swing" countries in the international political system to help halt illicit nuclear trade and reduce the threats of proliferation and terrorism.
Influential Republicans, ranging from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Senator John McCain, support the broad strategy President Obama is pursuing, which builds upon President Reagan's vision to eliminate nuclear threats. Indeed, the treaty is bipartisan through and through.
Furthermore, President Obama's nuclear strategy is not based on naïve idealism. His pragmatism is evidenced in the terms of New START and the story of its negotiation. Some of the President's opponents are angry that they lost health care and may oppose the New START as a result. But they cannot quarrel with New START on its national security merits.
As attested by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, New START would eliminate weapons the U.S. military doesn't need. It would decrease to 1,550 the number of long-range nuclear weapons the U.S. deploys, which is still plenty to destroy the planet a dozen times over. If there were ever a moment to cut needless government spending, it's now.
Even better news: the U.S. ceded no ground to Russia over the past year of negotiations. Russia wanted restrictions on U.S. missile defense systems. They're not in there. Russia wanted to eliminate inspection procedures. Secretary of Defense Gates certifies that New START will guarantee the U.S. access to all information needed. Russia believed President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize would give it the upper hand in negotiations, thinking the inexperienced President would grant concessions in order to be able to advertise the treaty is his acceptance speech in Oslo. No such luck for the Russian negotiators. President Obama stuck his ground, intervening personally with calls to President Medvedev on 14 occasions, and waiting patiently until both countries could strike a final agreement that is in the national security interests of both.
But let's be honest. When people talk about nuclear threats these days, they're mostly concerned about Iran, North Korea, and nuclear terrorism. What does New START do about these threats?
Arms control treaties are like preventive medicine. We would not expect a daily jog to prevent a looming heart attack, let alone reverse the effects of a stroke. We should not expect New START to single-handedly roll back Iran's weapons program, break North Korea's black market proliferation networks, or definitively lock up all nuclear materials worldwide. In the long run, just as daily exercise is a vital component of a healthy lifestyle, a series of steps toward stronger global rules to manage nuclear materials and technologies offers the best opportunity to slow nuclear proliferation and minimize the chances that terrorists get access to these weapons. We'd get it all for a cost not much higher than walking up the stairs.
And ultimately, the U.S. and Russia will have difficulty convincing countries to lose weight if they tip the scales higher than anyone else. Tightening our belts won't convince China to act against its strategic interests in Iran, but it will make us just that much more credible when we say we're acting in the global best interest.
The New START represents an important victory, but implementation needs Senate approval. Senators are so tired of bickering they are leaving the Senate. Americans are so tired of bickering they are supporting third parties. The Senate traditionally prides itself on its fair-minded approach to America's security. This is its chance to live up to its rhetoric.