August 3, 2009

When U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a Joint Understanding on July 6 on a treaty to follow the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), this first press of Obama's reset button launched U.S. negotiators into a time warp to circa 1969 Cold War-style negotiations against an artificial deadline. The result is unlikely to be in the interest of the United States.



Without START, which expires Dec. 5, the sides would be bound only by the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which limits each side to 1,700-2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads. SORT does not constrain non-deployed warheads, nor does it contain START's verification and elaborate consultation mechanisms.

Consequently, Obama and Medvedev "decided on further reductions and limitations of their nations' strategic offensive arms and on concluding at an early date a new legally binding agreement to replace the current START Treaty."

Their Joint Understanding calls for limits of 1,500-1,675 warheads and 500-1,100 strategic delivery vehicles—intercontinental and submarine-launched missiles and strategic bombers—on each side.

This is bad policy.

Although perhaps not unconstitutional, there is something rancid about a president peremptorily agreeing to terms that would require the advice and consent of the Senate to bind the United States.

As a practical matter, pre-agreed terms and commitment to "an early date" themselves become bargaining tools, more effectively wielded by Russian negotiators who are freer to maneuver in talks than their American counterparts. Facing a deadline to conclude a treaty, Russians are masters at 11th-hour negotiations.

Leaving that aside, it is silly to believe that a worthwhile treaty can be quickly achieved. Negotiators must agree upon exact numbers, counting rules and "provisions on definitions, data exchanges, notifications, eliminations, inspections and verification procedures, as well as confidence-building and transparency measures, as adapted, simplified, and made less costly, as appropriate, in comparison to the START Treaty."

Instead of the fatuous Joint Understanding, Obama and Medvedev might have inked a simple codicil to START extending its effect until a new treaty enters into force or until a set date, whichever occurs first. Then, U.S. and Russian negotiators could have returned to Geneva to tackle complex issues with the time and attention they require.

The U.S. 2001 Nuclear Posture Review weaned us from tit-for-tat strategic force planning to counter the Soviet Union, later Russia, and adapted strategic planning to a multifaceted and rapidly changing world. Given Russia's belligerent nationalism, China's uncertain future, North Korea's threats to create a "sea of fire," Pakistan's instability and Iran's steady march toward nuclear weaponry, the Obama administration should have thoroughly reviewed likely U.S. requirements before lurching into negotiations with Russia.

Moreover, even on that one-dimensional plane, the Joint Understanding points toward instability. Two generations of arms control professionals labored to spread each side's warheads on as many delivery vehicles as possible to confound first-strike calculations. Now, we are set to cut strategic delivery vehicles because many obsolescent Russian systems soon must be retired anyway.

In a post-Cold War world, Moscow could just eliminate these systems. But Russia yearns for the heady days of arms control negotiations, particularly 1969-1972, when America recognized it as a strategic equal.

Furthermore, Moscow is out to constrain U.S. capabilities with which it cannot compete—missile defense, strategic partnerships in its former empire and overwhelming conventional capabilities. The Joint Understanding opens the door to wrangling on all three.

The Russians understand that the anemic American missile defense system bound for Central Europe has naught to do with them. Their aim is to dampen American ardor for more effective missile defenses and for U.S. strategic cooperation with Poland, the heavyweight in Moscow's erstwhile East European empire.  Notwithstanding, the Joint Understanding calls for “A provision on the interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms.”

The Joint Understanding continues that the new treaty must also include "a provision on the impact of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles in a non-nuclear configuration on strategic stability." This could undermine U.S. efforts to adapt former strategic weapons to conventional munitions or to develop the new conventional long-range precision strike weapons that will undergird American power in the 21st Century.

To fix the situation, the administration should negotiate an extension to START, despite Russian objections—they need this more than we do. Meanwhile, it should complete its Nuclear Posture Review, now underway. Then, it must give negotiation of a new treaty the time and attention it requires—it took nine years to conclude START. Throughout, the Obama administration should recall that the Constitution establishes the Senate as an equal treaty-making partner. ■

David Smith is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Arlington, Va. He was U.S. chief negotiator for defense and space from 1989-1991.  This essay was previously published in DefenseNews

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