Thursday, November 25, 2010

New START, modernization, and Thanksgiving

by Peter Henne

Today I am thankful for many things, but #1 on the list is the fact that I am in no way responsible for getting GOP Senators to sign on to the New START treaty. Senator Jon Kyl's recent objections to the treaty made its ratification--in my opinion--rather unlikely, but he has graciously outlined his objections to the treaty in a recent memo to Senate Republicans. In it, Kyl expresses concerns over the modernization of the US nuclear weapons infrastructure, while barely mentioning New START itself.

Modernization is all fine and good, but it's unclear whether our nuclear weapons are really at risk of being made obsolete. As Page van der Linden wrote in a September piece in Foreign Policy, the Obama Administration has directed significant resources towards maintaining and modernizing our nuclear weapons. And as Cato's Benjamin Friedman and Christopher Preble argued recently, the United States could likely get away with significant cuts in our nuclear stockpiles and still protect our vital interests.

Beyond that, it's really unclear what this has to do with New START ratification. The issues are certainly related, but negotiating bilateral arms reductions does not inherently threaten US nuclear capabilities. The answer, I think, lies in the perverse effects of the contemporary Senate on US foreign policy.

As I argued early in the Obama Administration, debates in the Senate--then involving spurious GOP objections to political appointees--could have pathological consequences for US foreign policy. This is the case with the New START debates as well. If opposition to the treaty represented a broad consensus over the dangers of arms limitations, that would be one thing. That they are driven by a separate issue that is already being addressed indicates either irrational approaches to crucial foreign policy issues or the hijacking of national security by petty partisan squabbles.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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