A Weak Start for START

LOS ANGELES – A strange sense of déjà vu is gripping Washington these days, as the debate over ratification by the United States Senate of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia heats up. Spats have broken out between the Obama administration, future presidential contenders, senators, and arms control and defense experts. There may not be nostalgia for the Cold War in any of this, but much of that era’s mindset can be perceived again in the arguments being knocked about.

The Senate must decide whether New START enhances American security. Unfortunately, whatever the decision -- which has been delayed perhaps until late Fall to allow Obama’s administration more time to muster support for the treaty -- the US and Russian governments will continue to place each other in the nuclear crosshairs for the foreseeable future.

New START builds on a legacy of strategic nuclear arms limitation that goes back to the 1970’s. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger captured the allure in recent testimony: “The subject of nuclear arms control grew out of the seemingly paradoxical effort of those who had created the largest and most destructive arsenals to avoid by negotiation the ultimate consequences of their own decisions.”

Over the years “avoiding…the ultimate consequences” through limitations butted against the bitter legacy of the surprise attacks suffered by both the US and Russia in World War II. After the war, each adopted a “never be surprised again” policy, and so went on to invest trillions of dollars in a multitude of hardened, mobile, and concealed nuclear weapons to deter the other. The result produced tens of thousands of nuclear warheads. In time, strategic arms control treaties became the measure of the political relationship.