Bennett Ramberg: A Weak Start for START

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[Bennett Ramberg served in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs in the administration of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several books on international security.]

A strange sense of deja vu is gripping Washington these days as the debate over ratification by the U.S. Senate of the New START treaty with Russia heats up. Spats have broken out between the administration of President Barack Obama and 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 U.S. security. Unfortunately, whatever the decision — which has been delayed perhaps until late fall to allow the Obama administration more time to muster support for the treaty — the U.S. 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 1970s. Former U.S. 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 United States and Russia in World War II. After the war, each adopted a “never be surprised again” policy and invested 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...

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