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Why Democrats Fail at Arms Control
The president's nuclear treaties are already in jeopardy for the same reasons that Carter and Clinton ran into trouble.
By STEPHEN RADEMAKER
SEPTEMBER 23, 2009
In his address to the U.N. General Assembly yesterday, President Barack Obama once again stated his goal of "a world without nuclear weapons." Today Mr. Obama will address a special session of the U.N. Security Council on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. He will reiterate his intention to sign a new treaty with Russia providing for significant nuclear reductions, as well as his aim of persuading the U.S. Senate to reconsider its 1999 rejection of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Once those goals are met, he plans a second round of negotiated nuclear reductions with Russia.
But Mr. Obama's ambitious arms-control agenda is in trouble. To students of arms control, this comes as no surprise. Every Democratic president for the past 40 years has come into office committed to negotiating deep nuclear reductions with Russia. Each has left office without success.
The surprising fact is that the entire alphabet soup of U.S.-Russian strategic arms-control treaties was negotiated and signed by Republican presidents. Nixon gave us the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, Reagan the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, Bush 41 the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and Bush 43 the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).
By contrast, their Democratic counterparts have a much thinner record of accomplishment. President Jimmy Carter signed the SALT II treaty but withdrew it from Senate consideration after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the treaty never entered into force. President Bill Clinton labored for eight years but never signed a strategic arms-control treaty with Russia.
The principal reason that recent Democratic presidents have failed with Russia has been their excessive enthusiasm and ambition, which perversely encourages the Russians to overreach, dooming prospects for agreement. This was a problem for Messrs. Carter and Clinton. And it promises to be an even bigger problem for Mr. Obama, who comes to office with an arms-control agenda—the abolition of nuclear weapons—far more ambitious that of any previous administration.
The most pressing arms-control problem facing the U.S. and Russia today is the need to make sure that some sort of arms-control verification regime is in place when the current one established under the START treaty expires on Dec. 5 of this year.
Early on, Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) admonished the administration to "resist calls to load the negotiations agenda with objectives that, while desirable, would slow down the talks and threaten the tight timetable" for avoiding a lapse in arms-control verification. Mr. Obama disregarded this advice, deciding instead to use the negotiation to replace START as a vehicle for making an early downpayment on his commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons.
This decision guaranteed that the negotiations would be much more complicated than if they focused only on replacing the START verification regime. Mr. Obama has compounded this basic problem with a series of tactical decisions that, while accommodating Russian demands in the short term, will make it much harder to reach agreement in the long term.
In May, he agreed that the new treaty will limit not just deployed nuclear warheads but also warhead delivery systems. In July, he agreed that the new treaty will address missile defense and also "strategic conventional weapons." Each of these decisions introduced additional issues into the negotiation and opened avenues for Russia to demand additional concessions.
Most damaging of all, by making this new agreement a centerpiece of his foreign policy, Mr. Obama has led the Russians to conclude that he needs the agreement more than they do. Predictably, they have taken this as an invitation to raise the ante, heaping on still more preconditions to signing any agreement.
Today the administration finds itself in the unhappy position of negotiating against a firm deadline, with very ambitious objectives and a negotiating partner that does not share its political need to reach agreement. Come December, Russia can be expected to present Mr. Obama with two choices: Sign an agreement on terms disadvantageous to the U.S. (thereby risking defeat of the treaty in the Senate), or allow the START treaty to expire with nothing to replace it.
Any delay in this negotiation will, of course, delay the rest of Mr. Obama's arms-control agenda. Worse still for the president, the next item on that agenda—Senate reconsideration of the CTBT—also looks to be in serious trouble.
The bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission, chaired by former Defense Secretaries William Perry and James Schlesinger, may have dealt that treaty a fatal blow. The commission unanimously recommended that the administration negotiate a definition among the key signatories of what constitutes a prohibited nuclear-weapons test before seeking Senate reconsideration. So far there has been no indication that Mr. Obama is prepared to satisfy this requirement, which many will take as confirmation of the commission's suggestion that there is an underlying disagreement among the parties about what the treaty prohibits. Senate resistance to the CTBT certainly will increase if this issue cannot be resolved.
At today's meeting, Mr. Obama would be wise to avoid raising unrealistic expectations about what he can achieve in the area of arms control. And if he cannot reach agreement with Russia by the Dec. 5 expiration of START, perhaps he will listen more carefully the next time Sen. Lugar advises him on how to deal with Moscow in an arms-control negotiation.
Mr. Rademaker, assistant secretary of state from 2002-06 with responsibility for arms control and nonproliferation, is senior counsel at BGR Government Affairs in Washington, D.C.