New START and the 21st-century nuclear threat

It is time for the U.S. Senate to abandon the Cold War and support a nuclear security agenda designed for the 21st Century. Nothing underscores the rift in generational thinking more than the debate taking shape in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over whether to ratify the New START treaty.

It its core, the debate is not between liberals and conservatives but between those who understand that the world of nuclear weapons has changed dramatically and those who still view national security through a pre-9/11, Cold War lens. Whether the Senate ratifies the New START agreement signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev April 8th will be a key test of whether the Senate has made the shift.

Throughout the Cold War, there were really only two main players, the U.S. and the Soviet Union and the brutal logic of deterrence held sway. If either side attacked, the result would unquestionably be their own swift destruction. But the nuclear threat of the 21st Century takes a different shape altogether – where any new nuclear arms race will have devastating consequences for U.S. security. With Iran on the brink of acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, many other states are balking at restricting their own options, risking a new nuclear arms race. And with each new nuclear power, the chances of regional nuclear wars increases, as does the possibility that dangerous nuclear materials will be given to or stolen by terrorist groups. Terrorist organizations cannot be deterred. Driven by the zealots’ pathology of martyrdom they have no issue of national survival to consider, no territory to defend. Simply put, the more nuclear weapons and weapons states, the greater the threat to U.S. security.

This calls for a new nuclear security agenda of reducing the number of weapons and ensuring the complete control of their dangerous materials. The best way to do so is for the U.S. and Russia to lead by example, both in reducing their nuclear stockpiles and in strengthening the international safeguards of nuclear materials. A remarkable bipartisan consensus on this new paradigm has developed among former Cold War warriors, led by former Republican Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, and former Democrats Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn. This new thinking has taken hold among these respected statesmen — and other Democratic and Republican officials spanning every U.S. administration since the 1970s. They understand that nuclear weapons, once seen as our greatest source of security, are now seen as the greatest liability. These national security leaders advocate a new nuclear security agenda for the United States of reducing existing arsenals, as the New START does, securing nuclear material around the globe, limiting fissile material production, restricting weapons development through a verifiable ban on test explosions, and strengthening international collaboration to stem proliferation.

And in this context, the New START treaty is an important, if modest, step. Since the U.S. and Russia still control ninety percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal, they still set the terms of the debate. By moving to reduce that arsenal as they pledged to do in the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty, Moscow and Washington help pressure others to live up to their Treaty commitment not to acquire nuclear weapons arsenals. It is thus a step that builds support for a global effort keep Iran and others from joining the nuclear club. It will also put further pressure on Russia to negotiate reductions in tactical nuclear weapons, while not infringing on the U.S. right to develop a missile defense against North Korea, Iran, and other potential threats. And along with increased transparency regarding the size of the US arsenal and the successful Nuclear Security Summit in April, it is a step that signals that the United States is prepared to lead the effort to address the 21st Century nuclear threat.

Unfortunately, many Senators are still stuck in the Cold War mentality, lagging behind the growing consensus among national security professionals. They must understand that keeping America safe means recognizing we live in a changed world and need updated new policies. The question that will play out in Washington as debate on the New START treaty unfolds is how many politicians are keeping up with the times.

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