With President Obama determined to bring New START to the Senate floor before the end of the year, the national security establishment is virtually unanimous in its support of the treaty. Backers include everyone from the head of Strategic Command, seven of his predecessors, the co-chairs of the bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration and his predecessor, the directors of the nuclear weapons labs, and nearly every living former secretary of state. Public opinion, too, is strongly in favor of ratification.
With approximately 12,000 nuclear warheads -- about 2,600 of them deployed with "strategic" missiles and bombers capable of crossing the oceans -- Russia remains the sole force on Earth that could terminate the existence of the United States on any given day.
But if one were to go by the statements of editorialists, talking heads, and the senators who actually must vote on the question, there's precious little consensus about anything. Overall, is arms control a good idea? Is it even important anymore? Wouldn't it be better to build stronger missile defenses instead? Could a vote on New START be delayed without crippling its chances for ratification and entry into force? Confusion pervades the debate, almost to the point that no two pundits agree on even the most elementary questions.
Perhaps this problem is to be expected: The number of commentators or public servants willing to devote sustained attention to nuclear policy has only declined since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Still, if any undecided senators are pondering the issue, how should they think about New START? Reviewing four basic questions should help to place the treaty in perspective.
The role of nuclear arms control. The first and most essential question to ask is: What's the point of strategic nuclear arms control? Regardless of the merits of New START, has any US-Russian treaty really been necessary?
The answer is, yes, strategic nuclear arms control matters profoundly. With approximately 12,000 nuclear warheads -- about 2,600 of them deployed with "strategic" missiles and bombers capable of crossing the oceans -- Russia remains the sole force on Earth that could terminate the existence of the United States on any given day.
In this sense, strategic nuclear weapons are quite unlike other military capabilities. Strong ground, air, and naval forces could protect America from any conceivable invasion by stopping an attack before it reaches our shores. But no imaginable use of force, nuclear or otherwise, could reliably prevent Russia from wielding its arsenal of mass destruction against the United States.
Of course, America has its own massive nuclear arsenal to threaten Russia in return: about 9,400 warheads, including almost 2,000 deployed with strategic delivery systems. By itself, however, this is insufficient and even perilous. Without an effective means to limit, reduce, and monitor each other's strategic nuclear weapons, Washington and Moscow historically have experienced an acutely mistrustful, competitive dynamic that has sparked dangerous crises from the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 to the Soviet war scare of 1983. No strategic nuclear arms control means that the two countries will be tempted to renew the nuclear arms race, even if only to compel each other to accept an agreement.
The continued relevance of nuclear arms control. The second question is: Does New START really matter, now that the Cold War is over?
Yes, arms control still matters. When each side holds the other's future in its hands, the need for effective mutual reassurance endures.
Far from being a relic of the Cold War, the original START treaty did not enter into force until December of 1994, more than three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The START system of force limits and verification measures has played an important role in limiting potential tensions between Russia and the United States. Even when relations were at their nadir during the Putin and Bush presidencies, the reduction of arms proceeded apace.
As of December 5, 2010, a full year has passed since the expiration of the START treaty. Neither side's strategic nuclear arsenal has been subject to any binding limits during that time, and neither side's inspectors have laid eyes on the other's bombers and missiles. As a temporary condition en route to the swift renewal of arms control measures, this is one matter. As an indefinite state of affairs, it is another entirely.
US-Russian relations continue to waver between cooperation and mistrust. We can ill afford to let strategic nuclear force limits and verification lapse indefinitely.
Substituting missile defense. The third question is: Haven't defensive technologies come far enough that we no longer need to accept mutual vulnerability between the United States and Russia?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Even under the most optimistic assumptions about its performance, America's strategic ballistic missile defense, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, would be of no help against Russia's arsenal.
There shouldn't be any illusions on this score. Designed to address emerging threats from North Korea and Iran, the defensive system has no chance of stopping a Russian attack, for reasons of size, cost, and inherent technological limitations. For the foreseeable future, the time-tested combination of deterrence and arms control will remain the only way of managing the threat.
Delaying New START. The fourth question is: Could a ratification vote safely be postponed until next year, or perhaps later?
After months of maneuvering, the vote has already been delayed until the last possible moment in the legislative session. Deferring it to next year and the new Congress would -- to coin a phrase -- "reset" the entire process of committee hearings, briefings, questions, answers, and unseemly horse-trading. During this time, Russia's leaders will have little choice but to begin contemplating the alternatives to arms control. President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have already raised the possibility of a new arms race if New START is not ratified. Delay would probably be fatal to the treaty's chances.
Even if New START were somehow ratified in 2011, the harm to US interests would be considerable in the meantime. We can ill afford to alarm and antagonize Russia precisely when Iran's leaders are hoping to divide Moscow and Washington. If Iran's illicit nuclear ambitions are to be checked, they must face a united front from the great powers. The alternative increasingly looks like the start of a three- or four-way nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
The importance of swiftly ratifying New START is entirely apparent. Failing to renew arms control would be a radical experiment in relations between two nuclear-armed nations -- a step into the unknown, with little room for error.