Let’s hope Obama wins New START gamble

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — President Barack Obama’s decision to press for ratification of the New START treaty between Russia and the United States is one that will have a lasting influence on the rest of his presidency.

Although the treaty was signed in Prague on March 26 between President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the treaty still needs ratification by both the Federation Council of the Russian Federation and the advice and consent for ratification of the U.S. Senate. Failure to do so will be a drawback not only for Russia and the U.S., but for any efforts to curb further proliferation of nuclear weapons.

When ratified, the treaty will limit the number of deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 from 2,200, which is almost two thirds the amount of the original START treaty, as well as 30 percent lower than the deployed strategic warhead limit of the 2002 Moscow Treaty.

In addition, the treaty will also limit the number of deployed and nondeployed intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, submarine-launched ballistic missile launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments to 800, among other reductions.

An important proviso of the treaty is that it will ensure that each country has continued insight into the other country’s arsenal through inspections and information exchange. Failure to ratify this treaty will mean that the U.S. will have much less information about Russia’s nuclear plans and may give a push to the construction of additional nuclear weapons.

Predictably, the treaty has provoked strong criticism from leading Republicans. Former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post in which he suggests that under the treaty Russia will retain 10,000 nuclear warheads able to reach U.S. allies. However, last Friday Obama announced that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization agreed to his plans for a new, expanded missile defense system for Europe that would cover all NATO member countries and the U.S.

Many strong voices among Republicans, however, approve the treaty ratification. Among those figures are Henry Kissinger, James Baker III, Brent Scowcroft, George Shultz, James Schlesinger and, notably, Richard Lugar, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican. As Kissinger stated, ratification of the treaty “is not a bipartisan, but a nonpartisan challenge.”

Nonratification of the treaty by the U.S. will have far-reaching consequences on its relationship with Russia, particularly in dealing with the situation with Iran and Afghanistan. According to Sergei Rogov, head of the Moscow-based U.S.A. and Canada Institute, a leading think tank advising the government on foreign policy issues, Russia backed the last round of U.N. sanctions against Iran and also canceled a 2007 contract to supply Iran with sophisticated S-300 air defense missile systems that had been a cause of concern for both the U.S. and Israel. Russia had also supported NATO operations in Afghanistan, allowing the transportation of supplies through Russian territory.

Nonratification of the treaty by the U.S., although it would probably not affect these measures, would close the door to any further friendly action from Russia to the U.S., according to Rogov. Such a failure would affect not only Obama but also Medvedev, and will encourage the spread of nuclear weapons.

Republican senators should follow in the steps of Richard Nixon (president 1969-1974), who signed the SALT treaty with the Soviet Union and former President George H.W. Bush, who signed the START treaty with Russia, and put the interests of the country over partisan politics. As Obama stated, “This is not about politics. This is about national security.”

Cesar Chelala is an award-winning writer on human rights and foreign policy issues.