As the oft-used question goes: Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes? This is the White House’s apparent strategy with respect to ratification of the New START treaty. In response to questions from concerned senators regarding language in the treaty on missile defenses and repeated requests for access to the negotiating record, administration representatives have either offered bland assurances or simply stonewalled.
A reading of the treaty would seem to resolve the issue. The ninth paragraph of the treaty’s preamble says that the proposed reductions in strategic nuclear forces are undertaken in the context of the Parties “recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties.” This is a remarkable statement. No other agreement on strategic offensive weapons explicitly tied offensive and defensive systems together, suggested the relative importance of one to the other, or made any judgment regarding the effectiveness of extant missile defense systems. Although this statement is in the treaty’s preamble, it is remarkably broad in its treatment of the offensive-defensive relationship.
The 1969 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty not only acknowledged the interrelationship between offensive and defensive but made explicit the need to limit anti-ballistic missile systems in the interest of moving forward on limitations to offensive systems. But that was back in an era where strategies of mutual assured destruction and escalation dominance were central to the Cold War U.S. national security strategy. But the utility of such a strategy evaporated with the demise of the Soviet Union. In 2002 the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty and began efforts to deploy National Missile Defenses. According to the popular theory of the negative relationship between deployments of missile defensive and strategic arms reductions, these moves should have provoked a Russian withdrawal from the then-applicable strategic offensive arms control agreements. But they did not. Both sides continued to reduce strategic offensive weapons, even as the U.S. deployed both strategic and theater missile defenses.
Why is this paragraph present if there is no interest in tying limits on offensive forces to limits on missile defenses? The second and third clauses in this paragraph can easily be read to suggest that further deployments of missile defenses or the introduction of advanced defensive technologies would negatively affect current and prospective limitations on offensive forces. Yet, there are powerful arguments that can be made in favor of adding defensive capabilities, particularly as offensive systems are reduced. Robust defenses can make the transition to Global Zero — assuming such a goal is even feasible — more likely and safer by devaluing cheating and reducing the risk of first strike instability.
“Resetting’ the U.S.-Russian relationship has been a major, perhaps even the most important, priority of President Obama’s foreign policy. Reset is one thing; dialing back the relationship to the late 1960s is something else entirely. The Obama Administration seems intent on resurrecting the strategic nuclear standoff of the Cold War. Perhaps that is why Russian President Dmitry Medvedev found himself channeling the ghosts of Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Andropov when he warned that Russia would “deploy new strike means” if the United States and NATO did not come to an agreement with Russia on missile defenses.
The above referenced paragraph of the New START treaty sets a dangerous trap for future missile defense deployments. The current U.S. plan is to deploy increasingly capable defenses in a series of phases to meet what is expected to be a proliferating threat from the likes of Iran, North Korea and Syria. But the language in the New START treaty suggests that any expansion of current missile defenses could challenge the viability and effectiveness of strategic offensive forces; and this before any consideration of further reduction in nuclear arsenals. As a result, the Obama Administration is pushing a treaty that undermines one of the singular achievements of the Bush Administration, the decoupling of offensive reductions from missile defense deployments. This is not change anyone should believe in.
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