From the perspective of the U.S.-Russia New START arms control treaty, the congressional calendar looks like that Indiana Jones scene where the big stone door slowly grinds closed as our heroes race down the hallway to pass through it. A few weeks remain to get the bill out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before the August recess. If it clears committee, Sen. Reid has a compressed pre-election calendar to bring it for a floor vote. The Republicans can either give President Obama the sort of bipartisan arms control victory that the Senate traditionally grants — yeah, I know, how many votes does Tradition cast, etc. etc. Basically, Sen. Jon Kyl has set himself up as the GOP bellwether in closed-door discussions. He hasn’t ruled out voting for New START, and he appears to be trying to get money for modernizing the nuclear stockpile as his chit. For up-to-the-minute coverage on this, Josh Rogin is your man.
New START is just the — sorry — start for Obama’s nuclear-eradication vision. If it passes, by mid-decade, the U.S. and Russia get down to 1550 warheads. If it doesn’t, it’ll be largely because of the nuclear-eradication vision.
Sen. Richard Lugar is the Senate’s premiere nuclear-nonproliferation statesman. From his perspective, the Road to Zero is problematic, politically, for New START and arms control more broadly. Here’s what he told James Kitfield for this week’s (subscription only) National Journal:
I don’t fault… President Obama for talking about a world without nuclear weapons, but neither do I think it is a particularly good idea to express the process in that way. Quite frankly, it’s been difficult enough trying to get down to the 1500-warhead limit in New START.
Talk of “no nukes” also invites opposition from those who see it as a sign of weakness in those who lack the backbone to face the world as it is. I don’t think that criticism is fair, but it’s out there. So it seems to me that the more practical path to move incrementally ahead, taking warheads off missiles one at a time, steadily building trust and transparency into a process that makes misunderstandings less likely.
It’s a salient point. By portraying New START as the first step toward ultimate disarmament, you inevitably lose those who would consider reductions in the nuclear stockpile as a valid objective but who don’t know if they’re ready for full-on elimination. The Obama administration hasn’t articulated much of a vision for what collective security and the balance of global power looks like the day after the U.S. disarms. And that’s the concern at the heart of those who aren’t sure if they’re ready to take credible steps toward a World Without Nuclear Weapons.
On the other hand, without the World Without Nuclear Weapons, you probably lose the forcing mechanism for the spring’s impressive series of actions on nuclear security. The treaty. The Washington conference on nuclear security, with its new national commitments on energy security and spent-fuel control. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review at the United Nations. New multilateral sanctions on Iran. And then whatever follow-on efforts at treaty-based reductions with Russia emerge after New START — and I’ve heard administration officials say up front that they want to try to get them. Momentum is an ephemeral thing and hard to quantify. But there’s a real feeling out there, with demonstrated commitments that the world is willing to follow on enhanced nuclear security if the U.S. is willing to lead — and credible U.S. leadership here means the U.S. reducing its own stockpile. Without the Nuke-Free World vision, the Overton Window stays where it was before Obama.
But that doesn’t answer Lugar, fundamentally. I don’t know that there’s such a good answer. At a dinner last week, I heard Kitfield saliently observe that if New START fails, then the Nuke-Free World becomes Obama’s League of Nations, hobbling the nuclear-security agenda because the U.S. looks like it can’t convince its own people that the agenda is worthwhile.
I asked Joan Rohlfing of the Nuclear Threat Initiative if she thinks the next president could abandon the vision of a nuke-free world without much consequence, and her answer was a conspicuously qualified No. (Basically, the rest of the world will have a real problem with it. But an administration willing to jettison a nuke-free world probably won’t feel so compelled to assuage the world’s hurt feelings.)
Getting to an unqualified No, however, will require building a political constituency for disarmament, something that simply doesn’t exist right now in any significant grassroots manner. Disarmament in this country is an elite concern, accordingly subject to demagoguery — and, if a constituency doesn’t emerge, abrogation. Maybe the arms-control community can take some lessons from the constituency that got built, painfully and deliberately, for tackling climate change.