I suppose I should have an opposing op-ed to balance this with, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Charles Krauthammer makes the case that “From the naval treaties of the 1920s to this day, arms control has oscillated between mere symbolism at its best to major harm at its worst, with general uselessness being the norm.” One some level, you have to agree with him, the Kellogg-Briand Pact and similar interwar measures being the most glaring, but not the only, examples. I think it’s clear from past experience that arms reduction by itself doesn’t do much good.
He also makes a reasonable case for why a “nuclear-free” world isn’t realistic, which points to a problem with an idealist approach to the matter. This is why proposals such as the Baruch Plan – we’ll give up our nukes if everyone else gives up theirs – will never work. However, he calls New START “90 percent useless and 10 percent problematic.” His view is that it actually takes attention from real problems like North Korea by focusing on a “non-problem” with Russia.
First, I don’t think anyone is going to take their eyes off North Korea right now. Recent events have seen to that. I do see his point about having more important priorities, but he seems to ignore the importance of the treaty beyond the power/capabilities dynamic.
As has been pointed out in most every foreign policy outlet, the point of the treaty is not arms reduction for the sake of arms reduction but better relations with Russia. I covered this in some detail on my paper on Iran. As reported at http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Foreign-Policy/2010/1117/Is-US-Russia-thaw-threatened-by-new-START-delay:
While some Republicans scoff at the idea that putting off START ratification would seriously harm US-Russia relations, a number of Russia experts say a delay would feed the perception that Obama is weakened and unable to deliver on his commitments. And that perception, they add, could bolster Russian hardliners – in the camp of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – who are wary of Medvedev’s warming relations with Obama and America in general.
Russia wants other things from Obama as well, officials point out, including support for Russia’s accession into the World Trade Organization. Without such reciprocity, they worry, Russian cooperation could stall once again.
Krauthammer would probably respond by saying we don’t need or won’t get Russia’s cooperation, or making some otherwise cynical remark about the Russian government. This seems to turn a blind eye to the fact that this is no longer a unipolar world, and sometimes the United States has to get along with countries or regimes it may not particularly like. But setting aside Krauthammer’s reservations about impeding U.S. arms development (the “10 percent problematic”), one has to ask, why would the treaty be taking attention off of North Korea, Iran, etc.?
Because of people like him who quibble over the ramifications while simultaneously saying it doesn’t matter. If it’s such a useless proposal, but has clear implications for helping U.S.-Russian cooperation in other areas, why not let it pass? Then we can move on to other issues.
I think the real answer lies with the fact that, as pointed out in the CS Monitor piece, Obama considers improved relations with Russia “among the top foreign policy accomplishments of his presidency”. Would there be any issue over the treaty’s passage if it was a Republican president? Probably not. Would Krauthammer still bemoan the loss of U.S. hegemony? Probably.
It’s ultimately a classic case of domestic politics interfering with foreign policy and the Congressional-Presidential power struggle playing out as a function of this.
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