New START is About More Than Russia

(Initially published in The Huffington Post, December 15, 2010)

The Senate is to take up ratification of the New START treaty for consideration again this week. While much has been written on the debate over the issue, there are important considerations that are not being sufficiently addressed. Quite apart from relations with Russia, a failure to ratify the treaty risks a fatal undermining of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

To understand why this is so requires us to go back to the origins of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (the NPT). When it was negotiated in the 1960s, to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons, there was a grand bargain struck. In exchange for agreeing to forswear nuclear weapons, the non-nuclear countries that jointed the regime were promised assistance with the development of peaceful nuclear energy, and the recognized nuclear-weapons states committed to make meaningful efforts towards nuclear disarmament.

189 countries are now party to the NPT, and the treaty has survived as the primary legal framework for the international effort to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There is no other legal prohibition against the development of nuclear weapons, and absent the NPT and its underlying bargain, there is indeed no principled basis why some countries should be permitted to maintain nuclear weapons while the rest are denied the right to develop them.

The violation of the NPT’s provisions are the basis upon which the international community has imposed sanctions and other measures upon Iran, North Korea, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. While there continue to be some persistent hold-outs, namely Israel, India and Pakistan, other countries with well developed nuclear programs such as South Africa and Libya, have in the past abandoned their nuclear weapons programs to restore their status within the regime. Given the worst fears in the 1960s, the NPT has been extremely successful, and enormously beneficial to the U.S. strategic interests.

What does any of this have to do with New START? START relates directly to the commitment of the nuclear weapons states to move towards disarmament. Early progress on nuclear disarmament in the 1970 and 80s came to a halt in the early 1990s. From the perspective of the non-nuclear weapons states, this failure constitutes a violation of the grand bargain.

The NPT was scheduled to expire in 2010, and there was considerable concern that the non-nuclear states would refuse to renew it. New START was sold in that process as being a reinvigoration of the disarmament process. It was part of the reason for President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize. New START, despite being a very modest commitment on the part of both the U.S. and Russia, and aside from its importance in terms of reestablishing vital mutual verification regimes and improving relations with Russia, was a crucial renewal of the commitment made to the non-nuclear states in the grand bargain.

A failure to ratify the treaty now will be seen as a violation of that re-commitment, and of the bargain itself. It could be the final blow to the regime. An increasing perception that the bargain has been abrogated could easily lead to an unraveling of the NPT. If that happens, there will be no legal regime in place to prevent nuclear proliferation. Without the NPT, we will have little grounds for invoking an international obligation to exert pressure on states like Iran to abandon their nuclear weapons programs. The nuclear double standard will be increasingly questioned, and states may balk at joining in sanctions. We will be left with nothing but political appeals to individual state interests and fears, which may or may not align with our own.

The failure of the NPT, and increased threat of nuclear proliferation will not be in U.S. interests. What is more, the U.S. will appear to have abandoned yet another international regime that it helped create, and its credibility will suffer accordingly. So New START is about so much more than relations with Russia. It is about the U.S. reestablishing its leadership in the global effort to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons in the world, and being true to its commitments.

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