Also published here.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly 19 years since the US and Russia concluded a rather difficult nine years of strategic nuclear arms reduction talks and signed the “Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms”, also know as the START I treaty. This treaty essentially marked the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new, and somewhat more uncertain era of controlling the spread of nuclear weapons. In 1992, as part of the push toward US Senate approval of the START I treaty, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) remarked that:
“This historic treaty is the product of over a decade of bipartisan effort to move the United States toward a safer, more stable world,”
He pointed out the ramifications of the treaty within what was to eventually become the Russian Federation:
“If new, unfriendly regimes come to power, we want those regimes to be legally obligated to observe START limits and verification provisions,”
The treaty was approved by a huge margin in the US Senate, in a vote of 93 to 6.
This week, the process begins again, but under vastly different circumstances. On Thursday, April 8, President Barack Obama and President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia will sign a New START treaty in Prague. The complex nuclear security relationship between the US and Russia has evolved over the years to the point where we are no longer “enemies”, but we are far from being comfortable with each other. Still, at least we finally do have a New START treaty, although getting to this point was anything but easy.
The treaty text is not yet available, since some of the final technical details are still being ironed out. However, we do have a general idea of what the treaty contains, as I discussed last week. We certainly know enough to begin to predict what sort of arguments the treaty will face during the US Senate approval process, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today.
Nuts ‘n’ Bolts: How A Treaty Is Ratified in the US
The good folks over at the Council for a Livable World blog laid it out beautifully in this post. I’ll grab a few key points:
- The Senate does not actually ratify treaties — that is the job of the President
- The Senate provides advice (on the substance) and consent (with two-thirds of the Senate required to approve a treaty)
- The Senate considers on the Senate floor resolutions of ratification rather than the treaty itself
- To ratify a treaty, the President signs and deposits the instrument of ratification
- The resolution of ratification of a treaty can be as short as a paragraph or many pages long. The resolution of ratification of the 2002 Treaty of Moscow was longer than the treaty itself.
- The President submits a treaty to the Senate along with its associated protocol and annexes, as well as an article-by-article analysis of the treaty. The protocol and annexes provided details of verification procedures, for example. There are reports that the New START agreement is about 20 pages but that the associated documents are as much as 150 pages.
- Letters exchanged between the negotiators are often included in the package delivered to the Senate but are not binding, can be in the form of a unilateral statement or can be responded to by the other party either in agreement or disagreement
- The treaty is first considered in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has sole jurisdiction to write the resolution of ratification
- Other committees such as the Senate Armed Services and Senate Intelligence committees will often hold hearings as well and may express views to the Foreign Relations Committee but do not consider the resolution of ratification
- The resolution of ratification can be changed on the Senate floor through conditions, reservations, understandings and declarations. A majority vote, not two-thirds vote, is required to approve any of these additions.
- The Senate has never added an amendment to a treaty — although it is technically possible for a brief period of time — because the amendment would have to be approved by the other party(ies) to the treaty.
- A unanimous consent agreement must be reached to consider the treaty on the floor
(You can read more about treaty ratification here.)
It all sounds rather dry, boring, and straightforward, but as we’ve seen with the health care reform battle, we’re dealing with a particularly divided and contentious Senate. Although several members of Obama’s national security team emphasized that arms control treaties and legislation has passed with large bipartisan agreement in the past, we might be dealing with a very different picture this time around.
The Upcoming Arguments In The Senate
John Isaacs, the Executive Director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, has a must-read piece in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Senate consideration of the New START treaty. I highly recommend you read the whole thing; he describes the procedure in the Senate, the obstacles treaty approval is likely to face, and the overall response by the Obama administration to a year’s worth of opposition from certain Senate Republicans on arms control issues.
Of primary interest to Daily Kos readers is what Isaacs says here:
Will the new START agreement be approved? There are both positive and negative signs on this count. On the plus side:
- Many Republican officials and politicians have endorsed additional nuclear weapons reductions–including all six very conservative Republicans who served on the congressionally appointed nuclear posture commission led by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. Further, three key Republican senators have publicly supported START follow-on in principle: ranking Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Richard Lugar, ranking Armed Services Committee member John McCain, and Foreign Relations Committee member Bob Corker. I have personally visited about another 20 or so Senate Republicans, and none of them have opposed the treaty explicitly, although many of them raised concerns about missile defense and the health of the nuclear stockpile.
- Previous nuclear weapon treaties have secured overwhelming bipartisan support. For instance, the Senate approved President George W. Bush’s Moscow Treaty 95-0 in 2003 and President George H. W. Bush’s START agreement 93-6 in 1992.
- A bipartisan group of moderate and conservative senators, including Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, Connecticut Independent Joseph Lieberman, Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, and Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson signed a letter to President Barack Obama in July 2009 that, while objecting to curbs on missile defense, stated, “We support your determination to bring into force a follow-on agreement to START prior to its lapse on December 5th of this year.”
On the negative side:
- The polarization of the Senate may lead Republicans to block timely consideration of the treaty in order to deny Obama a victory before the 2010 midterm elections.
- Senate procedures provide multiple opportunities for a single senator to slow, or block, action on the treaty. Additionally, since the treaty won’t be signed until early April, there will be little floor time to a schedule a debate and to vote on it before a Senate recess for the November elections.
- It is uncertain whether Kyl is using the treaty to shape the debate to promote additional spending on new nuclear weapons and expanded missile defense or whether he will outright oppose the treaty.
He also points out that although Kyl has been busy sending letters to the White House voicing concern on everything from missile defense to verification issues, he has not been overtly opposed to the New START treat; Kyl is more focused on defeating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, should the Senate decide to consider it again anytime soon.
Having said all of that, what’s the forecast? What sorts of storm is brewing on the horizon regarding New START?
Cloudy With A Chance of Obstructionism
Last week, Senator Lugar’s office released his statement on New START:
“I commend the U.S. and Russian delegations for months of dedicated effort. I look forward to the President’s submission of the new treaty, its protocols, annexes and all associated documents to the Senate for advice and consent to ratification. I also look forward to working with Chairman Kerry to begin scheduling hearings and briefings for the Foreign Relations Committee so that we can work quickly to achieve ratification of the new treaty.”
Senator John Kerry (D-MA) released a similar statement; both Senators also met with President Obama to discuss the treaty. Obviously, they want it approved as quickly as possible.
But what about the opposition? I’d like to give you a glimpse of what it might be — a roadmap to the upcoming journey, if you will.
First of all, last week, John Bolton had some ridiculous things to say about New START, saying that it “threatens America’s sovereignty” and a number of other things. I don’t think it’s worth anyone’s time to pay any attention to him; that sort of extreme language might come up in the Senate, but it’s not as likely as something more subtle (but no less free of distortions).
In my opinion, the best preview of Senate Republicans’ arguments against approving a New START treaty can be found over at the (conservative) Heritage Foundation’s blog. In this post, Baker Spring lays out five concerns he has about the New START treaty, including the question of whether or not it will limit missile defense (the answer is a very firm “no”, by the way). Some of the other questions he has will be answered when the Obama administration announces its Nuclear Posture Review. Overall, it’s a complex picture, which will be easily muddied if the Obama administration, and the Senate Democrats, aren’t on their game when it comes to what I call the “nuclear PR war“.
There’s also a more extreme talking point that might come up, which is “why do we even need this New START treaty? It doesn’t accomplish anything much, and it actually weakens us.” (A good example of that particular argument is in a recent column in the conservative Weekly Standard.)
So, keep those things in mind as we navigate through the treaty approval in the Senate. It will be at least as difficult as the negotiation of the actual treaty was with the Russians; it will be painful and tortuous, but it’s absolutely necessary, from a national and global security point of view, that the United States ratify the treaty.
Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association says it succinctly:
Delaying action on the follow-on to START and rekindling U.S.-Russian nuclear competition is unwise and dangerous. New START promises to enhance U.S. and global security by further reducing excess Cold War strategic nuclear weapons.
We need to get it done, this year.