Debating the New START Treaty
Until the Senate stops framing the New START agreement as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition and begins deliberating to clarify its ambiguous provisions, we won't know [its value]. The administration claims that the treaty is a major plus and that it is free of limits on U.S. nonnuclear offensive and defensive missiles. Critics question this and administration assurances that the treaty bans Russian rail-mobile ICBM launchers, which they say are not specifically called out in the treaty's text.
To clarify these matters, the critics have requested access to the treaty's negotiating record. Senate treaty supporters have so far rebuffed their requests. This is a mistake. As a former Senate aide, who had classified access to the INF Treaty negotiating record in the 1980s, I can vouch for the value of reviewing it. Was it boring to read? Absolutely, but it was also useful. Back then, the worry was that the INF Treaty lacked a precise definition of what missiles were banned. The lack of anything in the record on this point forced our diplomats back to negotiate a detailed definition in a separate aide memoire.
Blocking the Senate from classified access to the New START negotiating record will only feed suspicions about the administration's claims regarding the lack of limits on U.S. nonnuclear missiles and missile defenses. If nothing was there, the Senate could get by agreeing to a Senate "understanding" that reiterated the administration's view. If there was something troubling in the record, a Senate reservation might be necessary. Similarly, if there was nothing in the record on rail-mobile ICBMs, an INF-like aide memoire might be desirable.
Finally, the administration insists that ratifying New START is critical to secure more substantial follow-on arms control agreements. Yet, the administration has said little about what these agreements might be or when they might be reached. There is reason to believe that any follow-on agreement with Russia to limit its thousands of tactical nuclear weapons would take years to reach. Does it make sense to bog ourselves down in such talks without also working on other strategic threats, such as China's growing nuclear and non-nuclear long-range strike systems?
The Senate has yet to press the administration on such questions, but until it does, it will be difficult to know if New START is an arms control beginning with a bright future, or a diplomatic dead-end.