Over the course of the next several months, policymakers, military leaders, and the general American public will have the most profound and consequential debate on nuclear weapons since the dawn of the Cold War. I recently returned from a two-day tour of Maine discussing what exactly constitutes this “nuclear spring.”
On April 6, the administration released a Nuclear Posture Review, which outlined a new nuclear weapons strategy designed to reduce our reliance on Cold War weapons systems. On April 8, President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to reduce the countries’ numbers of deployed, strategic nuclear weapons.
On April 13, President Obama hosted a Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., where more than 40 heads of state to discuss how to best ensure the security of nuclear weapons and materials. Finally, in May, as New START is submitted to the Senate for its advice and consent, a review conference on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the global arms control regime, convenes in New York.
Looking farther down the line, the Obama administration is also committed to submitting a second crucial arms control treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, to the Senate, likely next year.
These events have set the stage for a major national security debate over the next six to 12 months.
The biggest question is whether this spring will truly be a new beginning in the efforts of the United States to confront the dangers of the 21st century, or whether it will be a “false spring,” leading to a bleak future where the U.S. remains focused on threats of the past.
The key to answering that question, and the link that will signal U.S. leadership on the other arms control priorities, is the fate of New START in the U.S. Senate where 67 senators are needed to secure its approval.
While the Senate debate will likely focus on the new treaty’s verification measures, the rest of the world will likely give greater weight to the size of the reductions.
As parties of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the U.S. and Russia are legally bound to take steps toward the reduction and eventual elimination of their nuclear weapons arsenals — the fundamental bargain of the NPT bars states without nuclear weapons from acquiring them and commits the five original nuclear powers to reduce and ultimately eliminate their arsenals.
The status of New START in the U.S. Senate will signal to the rest of the world how seriously America takes its commitment to these and other arms control priorities.
A bipartisan majority is needed to approve the treaty. It is vital that a goal as serious and bipartisan as protecting America from the threat of nuclear weapons not fall into the trap of partisan political gridlock that often plagues Washington, D.C.
If the past is precedent, this should not be a problem. Indeed the major treaties arms control treaties such as SALT I (Nixon), Intermediate Nuclear Forces (Reagan) and START I (George H.W. Bush) were signed by Republican presidents and received overwhelming bipartisan support.
In the current toxic environment in Congress, it will take strong and early leadership to have New START considered on the basis of national security, not partisan politics. Both Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe will be critical in determining the tone and outcome of New START’s debate. And other Maine voices — such as former senator and Defense Secretary William Cohen — could add important weight on the side of civility.
Nuclear weapons may have kept us safe during the Cold War, but today, we live in a different century and face new dangers. In the 21st century, more nuclear weapons mean more opportunities for accidents or theft by terrorists.
Reducing the numbers and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons will require a global effort, and both New START and the test ban treaty are critical measures that will do both, greatly enhancing our national security. The fate of New START in the Senate will decide the outcome of our nuclear spring and our hopes for a more secure future.
Richard Klass is a retired USAF colonel. He served as a White House Fellow in the Nixon administration and in the Pentagon in the Carter administration where he dealt with strategic arms control issues. He currently sits on the board of the Council for a Livable World and is president of the Veterans Alliance for Security and Democracy Political Action Committee. He is a resident of Arlington, Va., but often visits his granddaughter and her parents in Somesville, Maine.