Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Beyond New START

By Peter Henne

Jonathan Swift once said, "Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed." (I've always attributed this to Swift, but while trying to find the citation, I also found it as an apparent quote of both Alexander Pope and Benjamin Franklin.) I've adopted this as my motto when pondering U.S. politics, especially concerning things like the crucial New START treaty.

That is why I was completely wrong about this treaty. As was reported earlier today on this site, the Senate ratified New START today. And as I said several times, I didn't expect it to pass, due to GOP obstructionism and the waning days left in this year's session. But it did, with 13 Republicans' support.

What does this mean for U.S. foreign policy? A lot, actually. The treaty keeps the inspections of nuclear stockpiles going and decreases the number of nuclear weapons maintained by the United States and Russia. More importantly, it preserves and possibly accelerates U.S.-Russian dialogue, which is crucial on issues such as the Iranian nuclear program.

What is the likelihood of the New START treaty leading to further arms control agreements or reductions in nuclear stockpiles worldwide? Probably minimal. As The New York Times' David Sanger argued, further steps towards Obama's goal of nuclear disarmament will be exponentially more difficult than was the ratification of New START.

This is partly due to the nature of the treaty. As I, and many others, pointed out one of New START's biggest selling points was its endorsement by numerous foreign policy luminaries, including Republicans. The objections of Senate Republicans notwithstanding, there was a pretty broad consensus on the necessity of this treaty. Other arms control topics -- such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and general nuclear disarmament--are more divisive, with reasonable arguments for and against the relevant international agreements.

It is also due to who voted for the treaty. Republican supporters included some who will not be around next year -- due to retirement or election losses -- including George Voinovich, Judd Gregg, and Bob Bennett. It also included moderates and pseudo-moderates like Scott Brown, Susan Collins, Dick Lugar, and Olympia Snowe, all of whom will face increasing pressure from GOP leaders to oppose Obama's initiatives as 2012 approaches, especially with some of them up for re-election. And that's not even counting the Democratic Senators who won't be in office after this session.

So the combination of lessened societal cohesion surrounding foreign policy issues and a decreased liberal/moderate pool of votes means Obama will struggle to add to this foreign policy victory. That is not to detract from the victory, as it is a great success for the President, Democrats, and -- I would argue -- US national security. And I don't want to take away from the admirable support for the treaty from numerous Republican Senators. I just need to salvage some of my pessimism in the wake of such an uplifting week.

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