As the U.S. Senate prepares to vote this December on ratification of the New START Treaty, Republican legislators appear on the verge of producing an international disaster.
From the standpoint of logic, there are excellent reasons to ratify the treaty. This agreement between the U.S. and Russian governments provides that each of the two nations would reduce the number of its deployed strategic nuclear warheads from 2,200 to 1,550. This reduction -- although a modest one, given their current nuclear arsenals totaling over 20,000 nuclear weapons -- would honor the commitment of the two governments, under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, to nuclear disarmament. At least as important, it would resume the nuclear arms control and disarmament process, which has been stalled for years. At a time when Washington is pressing the North Korean government to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and to convince the Iranian government not to develop one, New START also would lend moral authority to such non-proliferation efforts.
Certainly, thoughtful observers, both foreign and domestic, wonder why the United States and Russia need 95 percent of the world's 23,000 nuclear weapons. After all, what possible purpose is served today by these vast, Cold War-style, doomsday arsenals? As the New York Times recently editorialized: "Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States and Russia still have more than 20,000 nuclear weapons. That is absurd."
Moreover, the New START treaty would strengthen U.S. national security. Minimally, it would ensure that 650 fewer Russian nuclear weapons -- each with the capability of massacring hundreds of thousands of people -- were pointed at the United States. In addition, it would provide for substantial U.S. examination of Russian nuclear weapons facilities, including 18 short-notice inspections of Russian nuclear forces every year. With the expiration of the old START treaty last December, U.S. inspection came to an end and, at present, the United States can no longer keep tabs on what the only other significant nuclear power is doing with its nuclear weapons.
Not surprisingly, New START ratification is backed by the U.S. secretary of state, the U.S. secretary of defense, the entire current U.S. military leadership, and U.S. allies. Furthermore, it has been endorsed by six former U.S. secretaries of state, five former secretaries of defense, three former national security advisors, and by seven former commanders of the U.S. Strategic Command.
But treaty ratification requires a positive vote by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. And this is far from assured. Although Senate Democrats have indicated their solid support for the treaty, Senate Republicans have not. Indeed, the GOP solons seem ready to torpedo it. Why?
In part, Republican opposition to the treaty is based on the fact that GOP Senators are simply more hawkish than their Democratic counterparts. Beating the drum for the U.S. military, even when it involves a weapons system or a war U.S. military officials don't want, has become standard Republican behavior.
But Republican resistance to New START goes deeper, for President Barack Obama -- in a clear effort to win Republican support for treaty ratification -- has already promised the GOP a huge increase in U.S. nuclear weapons expenditures. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton reported only a few weeks ago, the administration has proposed spending 10 percent more on the U.S. nuclear stockpile in the current fiscal year and "more than $80 billion to modernize our nuclear weapons complex over the next decade." Overall, "the administration proposes spending more than $180 billion [in the next ten years] on the infrastructure that sustains our nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them." And yet, despite this nuclear weapons bonanza, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the chief negotiator for Senate Republicans on the treaty, continues to raise objections to it.
A more important explanation for GOP opposition is that the implementation of New START would be popular and, therefore, redound to Obama's political benefit. Given the fact that, for some time now, the Republican political strategy has been to denigrate Obama and to block congressional measures that might be considered administration successes, Republican Senators are very reluctant to reverse gears and hand the president a victory. The political dimension of GOP resistance is further illustrated by the fact that the old START Treaty, negotiated by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, was ratified by a Senate vote of 93 to 6 in 1992 and the Moscow Treaty, negotiated by President George W. Bush, won approval by a vote of 95 to 0 in 2003.
Thus, the situation is eerily reminiscent of some 90 years ago, when Republican Senators -- eager to hand President Woodrow Wilson a foreign policy defeat -- blocked U.S. ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, thus paving the way for World War II. Will we have a modern version of that disaster -- through the destruction of the nuclear disarmament process, a return to the nuclear arms race, and, eventually, nuclear war? The answer to that question might well lie in whether Senate Republicans put the good of their country and the world above narrow, partisan political advantage.
Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).