Conflict & Justice

New START for nuclear disarmament

The Senate is Washington has approved a nuclear arms pact with Russia, handing President Obama a huge victory on his top foreign policy priority. The treaty requires the US and Russia to cut their deployed nuclear warheads by some 30%. The World's Alex Gallafent takes a look back on the evolution of US � Russian diplomacy over nuclear weapons.

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The new nuclear treaty, known as the new START, looks set to be ratified by the US senate. The arms control agreement between the United States and Russia includes a modest reduction in nuclear forces.

It also reintroduces a program of on-site verification. But the successful ratification of New START doesn't mean things are going to get easier for President Obama's hope to bring about a nuclear-free world.

Some observers think that, given the numbers of nuclear weapons out there, arms control treaties are kind of meaningless.

Franklin Miller isn't one of them. �This treaty puts us inspectors back on the ground in Russia,� he said, �and that is it's most important aspect.�

Indeed, New START provides for verification that the Russians � and the Americans � are doing what they say they're doing when it comes to reducing stockpiles. But a nuclear-free world?

That's not what this treaty is about, said Miller, a former senior national security official, most recently with the last Bush administration.

�This treaty provides for some modest reductions, and indeed, when one looks at the overall numbers, it actually provides for more weapons than the Bush-Putin treaty of 2002,� he said. �As for the press broader agenda � going to a world without nuclear weapons � that has not been embraced by governments all over the world. The only government which has embraced it to any degree is the United Kingdom.�

But the Obama administration sees New START as a foundational treaty. Both President Obama and President Medvedev agreed that after New START, the two countries would begin a broader series of nuclear discussions, moving on to deeper reductions in arsenals.

But it took two years to get New START to a final vote in the US Senate, and the prospects for future nuclear treaties aren't bright, said Matthew Bunn, a specialist on nuclear issues at Harvard.

�Although arms control treaties in the past have always had bipartisan support, we have never seen in the past an arms control treaty that substantially limited the United States in some way that was signed by a Democratic president that got ratified,� Bunn said. �The ones that got ratified were signed by Republican presidents.�

One of those president was Richard Nixon, and the treaty in question was the SALT I treaty in the early 1970s.

In contrast, it was President Carter, a Democrat, who agreed SALT II with the Russians. The difference is that although SALT II was generally honored for a few years, it was never formally ratified.

It looks like this treaty, New START, will be the first arms control agreement signed by a Democratic president, and ratified by the U.S. Senate. It's also the first one ratified in a lame duck session, and the first one ratified without the support of the Senate minority leader.

It's a first in several respects, said Matthew Bunn, �but respects that make it seem likely that it's going to be harder to get the next treaty in the future.�

Bunn said he believes we do need more treaties. There are elements of nuclear arms control that aren't tackled by New START or any of its predecessors.

Take the actual counting of nuclear weapons. The way it's done is by figuring out the number of missiles and bombers, and then attributing warheads to those delivery systems, Bunn said.

�So once you take the warhead off the missile or bomber � believe it or not, under the treaties we've negotiated so far you can do whatever you like with it,� he said. �It's an amazing fact that neither the US nor Russia has ever verified the dismantlement of a single nuclear weapon in the other country. We've verified the dismantlement of hundreds of missiles and bombers and submarines and things of that kind, but not of the warheads themselves.�

Bunn added that the United States has dismantled many warheads over the years, and that it looks like Russia has done the same.

But no one knows for sure. And New START, like all the treaties before it, doesn't change that.