Pressing the “Re-START” Button

Well, that was interesting. While I was flying home for the holidays today, the Senate decided to actually get stuff done and, you know, be productive. When you think about peace on Earth, “good will toward men”, and so on this holiday season, you just gained another reason to believe in the possibility of those things actually happening in our lifetimes. After a long, nail-biting debate over its merits, knocking away several attempts to derail it along the way, the Senate approved the New START treaty with Russia. Of course, the treaty still needs to be approved by Russia’s parliament, but that has been considered a given. Then again, Senate approval of a treaty such as this was thought to be a given as well…

A Hard-won Foreign Policy Coup
The treaty itself is relatively a no-brainer; it reauthorizes the “trust, but verify” doctrine announced by former President Ronald Reagan when he negotiated the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. Technically, we haven’t been able to keep an eye on the Russian nuclear weapons since the original treaty expired last year; though they don’t quite pose anywhere near as much of a threat to the United States as they did 25 years ago, it’s better by far to have the mutual inspections than to not have them, don’t you think?

In addition to restoring the inspections, the new treaty reduces the number of nuclear missiles the US and Russia are allowed to have. Sure, each side will still have 1,500 missiles under the treaty, still enough to kill all of us many times over, but the symbolism behind the reduction is the important part. By taking us closer to Global Zero, or complete nuclear disarmament, at least between the two nations. Twenty years ago, it wouldn’t need that qualifier of course; ever since the end of the Soviet Union various other countries around the world have developed a nuclear capability. However, by leading by example, the US and Russia may be able to cause a domino effect worldwide.

At least, that’s the theory. It’ll take a while, to be sure, but it’s a feat of diplomacy, both inter- and intra-national, that we’ve even gotten this far. Heck, the negotiations with Russia look like a cakewalk compared to the drama in the Senate. First off, treaties require 67 votes to pass, rather than the normal 51 (or 60, as this session of Congress has shown…). Bipartisanship: seemingly a four-letter word in this past Congress, and a requirement even in the best of times for treaties and other diplomatic accords.

Surprisingly, the New START Treaty managed to clear this hurdle and then some in the most polarized Congress in decades. However, this was only after President Obama assembled an all-star cast to lobby the Senate for the treaty, including Chancellor Merkel of Germany, a host of former Secretaries of State, and former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton, among others including the usual host of current Cabinet secretaries. Of course, President Obama himself was intensely involved in the lobbying effort; from even making the push to ratification in the lame-duck session of Congress to personally contacting wavering Senators to assuage their concerns.

Among the most common concerns with the treaty were those regarding the missile defense system proposed for Eastern Europe. This system is intended to counter a threat from Iran, primarily, but Russia is understandably uneasy about it. The US has, among other ideas, proposed that Russia work with NATO on the missile shield, and that has gone the farthest yet toward easing their concerns about the thing; it is still far from certain, as the cooperation is only just now beginning.

This all fits into a larger theme of pressing the “reset” button in our relationship with Russia. It has been a rocky attempt, to be sure, between the missile shield, Wikileaks, dealing with Iran and North Korea and so on, but this treaty is more than a clever acronym. The New START treaty is just that, a fresh start with Russia after decades of antagonism and distrust. If the first START treaty represented the hopes of glasnost and peace between East and West, New START represents the new era of global cooperation that the War on Terror and our post-9/11 world in general demands.