Will START Talks Go MAD

Russia has tried to use these treaty talks to lock in its nuclear advantages and take away any potential American defenses, and our side seems ready to agree it will neither improve nor expand its existing system for countering long-range ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, true to Obama’s dream, the U.S. government doesn’t seem to think that having the ability to inflict widespread damage on Russia would be essential to an improved bilateral relationship.

All carrots on the American side and all sticks on the Russian side — that is how the prospective START follow-on Treaty with Russia is shaping up right now. To capture the deliberate, self-inflicted vulnerability of the U.S. side try this thought experiment. What if U.S. negotiators at the signing ceremony issued the following unilateral declaration:

The U.S. Government recognizes that the Russian Federation has the ability to inflict damage on the United States with the nuclear weapons in its arsenal and accepts that this circumstance constitutes the cornerstone of the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship. On this basis, the U.S. Government pledges that it will not take steps that could weaken the Russian nuclear deterrent. Specifically, the U.S. Government will neither improve qualitatively nor expand its existing system for countering long-range ballistic missiles.

Far-fetched? Not really — except in terms of the explicitness of the American embrace of vulnerability. During the course of the talks, the Russians have made it clear that they expect the U.S. government to accept the Russian Federation’s ability to inflict widespread damage on the United States with nuclear weapons. In fact, they seem to see this as the cornerstone of an improved United States-Russian bilateral relationship. Worse, the U.S. government seems to be moving toward accepting this idea.

Russia has tried to use these treaty talks to lock in its nuclear advantages and take away any potential American defenses, and our side seems ready to agree it will neither improve nor expand its existing system for countering long-range ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, true to Obama’s dream, the U.S. government doesn’t seem to think that having the ability to inflict widespread damage on Russia would be essential to an improved bilateral relationship.

“The issues of missile defense and offensive weapons are closely interconnected,” as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin put it on December 29. “There could be a danger that having created an umbrella against offensive strike systems, our partners may come to feel completely safe. After the balance is broken, they will do whatever they want and grow more aggressive.”

A few weeks ago, the Obama administration responded substantively to the Russian position. In its Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report, it stated: “While the [Ground-based Midcourse Defense system for countering long-range missiles] would be employed to defend the United States against limited missile launches from any source, it does not have the capacity to cope with large scale Russian or Chinese missile attacks, and is not intended to affect the strategic balance with those countries.”

President Reagan saw this kind of balance of terror relationship with Russia’s predecessor (the Soviet Union) for what it was: deranged.

On March 23, 1983, he stated that even though both sides might be willing to reduce their numbers of nuclear weapons, “Nevertheless, it will still be necessary to rely on the specter of retaliation, on mutual threat. And that’s a sad commentary on the human condition. Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than avenge them?” An effective defense will make America safer, not more aggressive.

Congress has, wisely, warned the Obama administration that it shouldn’t use the START follow-on negotiations to impose limits on U.S. missile defense options. So by moving in the direction of re-codifying with Russia the old balance of terror relationship the U.S. had with the Soviet Union, the Obama Administration is all but inviting the Senate to reject ratification of a START follow-on treaty.

Initially, such a rejection would likely be seen as a failure of U.S. diplomacy. In fact, it would represent an opportunity, if only President Obama would grasp it.

President Reagan pointed the way. Polls show the American people want (and the Russian people should want this, too) defensive strategic postures between the two countries to form the basis of an improved bilateral relationship. Neither side should want — or accept — a balance of terror. Public opinion throughout the world would likely warm to this idea if President Obama uses the power of public diplomacy to make the case for it.

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson took the U.S.-Soviet relationship in the wrong direction by using arms control as a means to attempt to convince Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin that both the U.S. and Russia should abandon strategic defenses. The summit took place in Glassboro, New Jersey. It took years of effort in public diplomacy, but the U.S. and the Soviet Union codified the balance of terror relationship in 1972 with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Senate rejection of the START follow-on treaty could prompt President Obama to pursue an arms control policy with Russia that seeks a Glassboro in reverse. Clearly, Russia wouldn’t be receptive at this time, just as Kosygin wasn’t receptive to the balance of terror in 1967. But establishing an improved U.S.-Russian relationship on the basis of defensive strategic postures on both sides will make sense to the American people, the Russian people and world opinion. And it may move us closer to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, a “difficult but achievable goal,” as President Obama puts it.

Baker Spring is F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at the Heritage Foundation. Helle C. Dale is Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy in the same institute.