James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Guest Post: After New START

by James M. Lindsay
December 24, 2010

My good friend and former CFR colleague Jim Goldgeier has graciously agreed to share his thoughts on what the Obama administration should do next now that it has pocketed its victory on New START. Jim is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, a fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, and co-author of America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11, which I highly recommend.

President Barack Obama and his team are rightly savoring their successful effort to gain Senate ratification of the New START treaty. From the outset of his administration, the president has pursued both better relations with Russia and lower nuclear arsenals, and this treaty is an important milestone for him.

But let’s step back and take a look at the bigger picture. In their first meeting of April 2009, Obama and Russian president Dmitriy Medvedev issued a joint statement that read, “We, the leaders of Russia and the United States, are ready to move beyond Cold War mentalities and chart a fresh start in relations between our two countries.”

But what screams out “1973 détente” like an arms control treaty in the SALT and START mode? It’s how we sought to regulate the Cold War competition. (Sadly, there was much stronger bipartisan support for comparable treaties during the Cold War than there was this week.)

In fact, former George W. Bush Pentagon official Douglas Feith, in his Wall Street Journal article seeking to dissuade Senators from voting for new START, wrote that early in the Bush years,

“We had concluded that America was deploying far more warheads than necessary, as the Cold War was long over and there was hope of friendlier relations with Russia. We reckoned we could cut our arsenal by approximately two-thirds, and that it was not necessary to condition our reductions on any reciprocal Russian promises. So President Bush announced that the U.S. would make the two-thirds cut on our own. Russia was not our enemy, and given other threats such as North Korea and Iran, there was no sense anymore in making Russia our touchstone for all strategic weapons.”

But the Russians wanted a treaty, so the Bush administration signed one.

An announcement in the coming year that the United States was ready unilaterally to lower its arsenal to 1000 nuclear warheads and was inviting the Russians to follow would truly be a welcome, bold departure from the tortuous path New START took and move us beyond Cold War mentalities. And the United States could go to such levels without losing the ability to deter any potential nuclear weapons state from launching its warheads against the United States or its allies. After all, we are deterred by a handful of North Korean nuclear weapons.

The problem is that it’s easier for a Republican like Bush to go this route than it would be for a Democrat. One can only hope that if Obama were to decide to take such a radical step, Feith and other supporters of unilateral reductions from the previous administration, including former President Bush himself, would stand with him to beat back the inevitable political cries that the president was weak on national security. Given the drama surrounding New START, it’s the only way to go to the seriously lower levels of nuclear weapons the president wants.

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