"New START" Ratification Likely End of Obama's "Disarmament Vision," And Of Arms Control Era, As New Political Alignments, Fresh Crises Loom

24 December 2010

By Greg Mello

What began as a business-as-usual replacement for a Cold War arms treaty, and then became a major legislative challenge for the Obama Administration, was finally ratified by the U.S. Senate today after unusually-involved negotiations with Senate Republicans. New START is a force-affirmation treaty, designed to clarify, but not change or disarm, U.S. and Russian nuclear arms. There is no disarmament required by the treaty. There is no indication that it is a "first step" toward "further" "disarmament."

These negotiations resulted in extensive commitments by the Administration to new spending and upgrades to U.S. strategic armaments, including nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons infrastructure, missile defense research, development, and deployments, and continued development of conventional global strike weapons -- much of which is applicable to nuclear delivery systems as well, being currently barred only by (mutable) law.

Ultra-accurate submarine-launched ballistic missile delivery systems have already been developed (but not deployed) under this last program.
The full cost of this treaty cannot yet be assessed, as not all the details of understandings reached have been made public, and the full import of some which have depends on future decisions and events. Just this week, and on top of announcements of two major increases in nuclear weapons spending, President Obama promised four senators (including two Democrats) that nuclear weapons complex spending would be exempt from any future fiscal austerity measures that might otherwise apply to appropriations in the Energy and Water subcommittees. The prior increases are posted here and analyzed here and elsewhere at www.lasg.org.

The long struggle to ratify the treaty, and its huge final cost in the very coin of arms control which the treaty purports to advance, signals just how weak the Cold War arms control consensus has become. Prospects for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), for example, appear nil for the foreseeable future. The U.S. will ratify this treaty, if it does, only when its progressive ratification by other states has reached a point of embarrassment wholly incompatible with U.S. geostrategic ambitions.

The way forward for arms controllers is not clear. Russia has made clear on numerous occasions that it has no intention of pursuing further nuclear cuts and has halted the financially-driven erosion of its nuclear forces. With Russia now the world's largest oil producer and the supplier of a controlling fraction of natural gas to Europe -- a fraction that is expected to grow considerably in the coming years -- Russia is not the weak negotiating partner that it was during, say, the START II negotiations. The reality of Russian power -- and U.S. weakness vis-a-vis military operations in the oil- and gas-rich regions south of Russia -- was not lost on Republican ratification opponents.

While on their face most of the Republican objections to ratification appeared foolish and ill-informed, these objections also conveyed a deep unease about the future of American global power, which is hardly misplaced.

The makeup of the incoming House and Senate (112th) is likely to be much more hostile to arms control than the (111th) Congress now concluding.

Looking ahead, prospects for conventional arms control appear worse. There are 23 Democratic Senate seats up for election in 2012, including 2 independents who caucus with the Democrats, compared to only 10 Republican seats. In 2014 Democrats are currently expected to have 20 seats up for election, and Republicans 13, although obviously this could change. For these and other reasons, prospects for conventional arms control measures appear bleak for the foreseeable future.

At the same time fresh and far more severe crises are looming, which, in their earliest manifestations, have already begun to capture Congress's (and voters') attention.

The implications for the New Mexico laboratories are complex. As noted here, they will suffer from an unprecedented infusion of cash -- about six times the total scale of the Manhattan Project in New Mexico, measured in constant dollars. But will this bring better morale, better science, better community relations, a more wholesome community in Los Alamos -- or even better stockpile management? That is very far from assured. The reverse, I think, is very likely true. The best days of Los Alamos are in the past, and if the day ever dawns when excavation begins on the giant plutonium complex slated to cost a factor of ten more any federal or state project ever conceived for New Mexico, save the Interstate Highways, it will be a dark day.

As Robert Oppenheimer put it on the 16th of October, 1945, "If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The people must unite, or they will perish."

Now we know that it may or not be atomic weaponry which kills them, but rather the distraction they have brought, and misprioritization of scarce resources they incur. Today's treaty ratification is not an occasion of joy for the world, but rather a somber warning of the failure of our political system to understand and defend against the true dangers we face.



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