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December 20, 2010

Five thousand, one hundred and thirteen; this is the number of nuclear warheads the United States currently has according to the Obama Administration’s announcement this past May. That number is way down from the peak of 31,255 in 1967.  The number 5,113 can be viewed both as the number of targets for potential terrorists or as the number of weapons to fight potential terrorists. The Obama Administration and much of the international community concur that the former is more realistic. This is a principle reason why an arms reduction treaty with Russia is something Obama has repeatedly called an issue involving national security.

A major concern is the potential for terrorists or rogue nations to acquire nuclear weapons.  The world’s other large stockpile of nuclear weapons belongs to Russia. President Obama and Russian President Medvedev cosigned a new treaty for cooperation on reducing each nuclear arsenal in April.  The ratification of the New Start treaty is being held up in the Congress by Republicans; primarily Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, who has been the most outspoken critic of the treaty’s ratification.  Sen. Kyl was able to convince the Obama Administration to allocate $85 billion to modernize our nuclear arsenal, during the process of lobbying his vote.

Kyl and others have also argued that signing a treaty with a Russian government that is not trustworthy nor looking out for the interests of the United States, would be an unwise decision.  The Senate is poised to work through the weekend in part to hopefully ratify the New Start Treaty. Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina had threatened to prolong the proceedings by forcing the bill to be read aloud, which could have taken up to fifteen hours to accomplish.

Opponents of the treaty claim an ideological divide based on what is the best strategy for defending the United States from its adversaries.  More specifically, the divide appears to place a lot of its emphasis on how the American government should deal with Russia.  President George W. Bush backed out of an arms treaty with Russia after the country’s 2008 aggression in Georgia.  Since taking office, the Obama Administration has made “resetting” relations with the Kremlin a key priority of its foreign policy.  Signing the New Start treaty is a centerpiece of resetting the relations of both nations.

Equally important is that the treaty enables a framework for monitoring Russia’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and ensuring a reduction of their numbers too.  It would seem that no matter which side of the ideological divide one stands, having access to information regarding Russia’s nuclear weapons is an important step toward ensuring peace between the two largest nuclear states in the world.  It is in the interest of both The United States and Russia to coordinate the reduction of the number of nuclear warheads on the planet. It is also their collective responsibility in a post-Cold War, post MAD era.

In a world where the United States is becoming more and more concerned about threats from non-state actors, flaunting one’s nuclear might is irrelevant to reducing that danger.

Opponents may argue that cooperating with a government that makes arms deals with adversaries of the US only encourages them to continue to do so, but one must then ask to where our non-cooperation leads?  There is little incentive for Russia to stop making said deals without an arms treaty with the US.  A treaty would at the very least give us inspectors on the ground in Russia to monitor their nuclear weapons program while extending a hand as a gesture of good will by also allowing Russians access to information regarding the United States’ nuclear stockpile.

The large numbers of warheads we currently have serve little strategic purpose.  Agreeing to reduce their numbers as part of a treaty with Russia leading it to also reduce its stockpile is nothing but a positive step toward creating a safer world.  In addition, the billions spent on defending and maintaining our bloated arsenal can much better be spent on actual defense.  The Energy Department would also be able to divert billions of dollars spent maintaining the nuclear stockpile into developing things such as cleaner energy production that benefit everyone on the planet.

With the Senate one vote shy of the sixty-seven required to ratify the treaty as of December 16, Democrats are entering crunch time before the lame-duck session of the legislature ends and Republicans gain seats in the Senate at the start of the new session in January.  The Senate has had eight months to read the treaty and the Obama Administration has made compromises that give Republicans such as Sen. Kyl almost all of what was requested without completely compromising the aim of the treaty itself.

Republican Senator James Risch (ID) introduced an amendment to the treaty that, according to most, including Republican Senator Richard Lugar (IN), would have killed the treaty by changing language in the preamble of the treaty that the Russians would have certainly rejected. This would have required a re-negotiation of the treaty at some later time. The Risch Amendment was defeated Sunday in a vote of 32-60. A vote on the original treaty is scheduled for Tuesday the 21st and it now appears that the treaty will pass. We will see.
Brian Kennedy is a freelance writer based out of Oakland, CA.
UPDATE: The Senate voted Wednesday, December 22, 71-26 to ratify the START treaty. Thirteen Republicans and fifty-six Democrats passed the bill by a margin of four votes.


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