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New START: beyond the rhetoric

By Peter Brookes and Owen Graham - posted Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The recently inked United States-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) has ignited the op-ed pages of prominent newspapers and web sites across America over the last few days. The Senate must now reflect on the value of the arms control pact - which that legislative body must decide whether to ratify or not - to American national security.

Some have defended or attacked the treaty on its merits, while others have sought to categorically dismiss those with differing views as “opposed to arms control” or as “politically motivated”. Unfortunately, these claims miss the point of debate: whether this treaty is good for America or not.

Real, substantive concerns

Suffice it to say that liberals and conservatives have both supported arms control treaties that advance the US national interest and are consistent with the Constitution’s requirement that the federal government provide for the common defence. In the past, the American left has certainly given arms control pacts promoted by Republican Presidents a thorough examination. The idea that some are opposing New START just to score political points distracts from the critical issues at hand.


But setting these matters aside for a moment, there are real, substantive matters in New START that need to be addressed. For instance, treaty proponents insist that nothing will impede the US’s ability to deploy missile defenses. Unfortunately, as President Ronald Reagan would say, this is just not so.

The treaty imposes significant limitations on US ballistic missile defenses, and new limitations continue to be unmasked as the treaty is scrutinised. Considering the rising threat from Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, not to mention North Korea’s existing threat, limiting America’s ability to defend itself should be a non-starter.

Significant limitations

First, there is the Kremlin’s post-signing statement on New START, which says that any “qualitative” or “quantitative” change to American missile defenses would lead to a possible withdrawal of the Russian federation from the treaty. The Russian position clearly indicates that there are irreconcilable differences on treaty interpretation when compared to the US unilateral statement. By this statement, the Russians are effectively forcing the US to choose between improving its missile defences and keeping the treaty intact. That is a false choice.

Then, there is the treaty’s preambular language itself, which states:

Recognising the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms [missile defense], 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.

Supporters of the treaty dismiss concerns over the preamble, stating that it has no legal standing, “limits nothing” with regard to missile defense, and simply “notes the relationship between the offense and defence, a strategic reality that has been recognised for more than 40 years”. Others, however, see this as a clear restriction on the development of missile defence.


Adding to incredulity about the treaty is that additional limits on missile defence continue to be revealed. It is worth remembering that the Obama Administration originally asserted that New START would impose no limitations on missile defence but has now backtracked to insist the treaty would have no specific restrictions. Then, Administration officials later ceded that Article V is a restriction but will not affect the Obama Administration’s missile defence plans, which are still under development. (Article V prohibits the conversion of intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] and submarine-launched ballistic missile [SLBM] launchers into missile defense launchers.)

The newest constraint is one on test-target missiles and launchers, which are used to develop and improve missile defence systems. The Obama Administration has yet to address this issue, but testing restrictions are unacceptable and would undermine America’s national security, especially as unforeseen threats develop. American defence policy and capabilities should be adaptable to future security challenges.

When viewed together, it is clear that New START’s preamble, the Russian unilateral statement, and remarks by senior Russian officials suggest an attempt by Russia to limit or constrain future US missile defence capabilities. This is significant, considering the nuclear and ballistic missile non-proliferation challenges America faces today - and may face in the future.

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First published by The Heritage Foundation on July 13, 2010. The authors thank Michaela Bendikova for her assistance in preparing this piece. Ms Bendikova is a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation.

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About the Authors

Peter Brookes is Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs and Chung Ju-Yung Fellow for Policy Studies in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

Owen Graham is Research Assistant in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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