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Why Our New Nuclear Weapons Treaty with Russia Matters

Rachel Kleinfeld explains why the nuclear arms reduction treaty the Senate ratified today is "a masterful piece of diplomacy."

Today, the Senate ratified the new START treaty, an treaty between Russia and the United States to further scale back their nuclear arsenals. Because after all, who wants more nukes in the world (besides North Korea, Iran, and Al-Qaeda)? The New York Times is calling it "the most tangible foreign policy achievement of Mr. Obama's two years in office."

Back in April, when Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the treaty, Rachel Kleinfeld, the CEO of the Truman National Security Project, wrote a column for GOOD explaining why the treaty was "a masterful piece of diplomacy." The bulk of her column is below, to help put today's news in perspective.

New START cuts the Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals to 1,550 deployable weapons each—that’s an overall cut of 30 percent. It also sets up rigorous verification measures so the American hand can see what the Russian hand is doing, and vice versa.

Reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals is no left-wing fantasy—it has been a Republican goal for decades. Ronald Reagan first pushed the idea in the 1980s, recognizing that the number of nuclear weapons both countries had was more than enough to protect ourselves, and that while we needed enough firepower to safeguard the house, having enough to burn it down did no one any good. George H. W. Bush finished what Reagan started by signing the first START treaty in 1991. The treaty was a major success, leading to an 80 percent reduction in American and Russian nuclear arsenals and easing Cold War tensions. When it expired last year, national security leaders across the political spectrum called for a new treaty.

Preeminent groups of statesmen from both sides of the aisle don’t come together much these days. But New START brought together everyone from Reagan’s Secretary of State to Clinton’s Secretary of Defense for a reason: They agree that we now face a new threat exacerbated by the mere existence of more nukes. Al-Qaeda is hell bent on getting a nuclear weapon, by hook or by crook. Sadly, that might be easier than we’d like to think. In January, a nuclear air base in Belgium—a major NATO partner—was breached by anti-nuclear activists. They spent over an hour in the base before they were detected. If they can do it, so can terrorists.

The threat of nuclear terrorism is real, and our country’s top officials are serious about locking down, reducing, and safeguarding nuclear stockpiles. Since 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons are owned by Russia and America, the New START treaty is where the effort begins. As we’ve known for years, Russia’s ability to keep its nuclear material under lock and key hardly inspires confidence. Personnel are untrustworthy, corruption is rife, and nuclear material is unaccounted for. That’s why reducing Russia’s nuclear arsenal is so critical: The less they have to guard, the less terrorists have to steal.

Yet New START is not only a major accomplishment in terms of what it delivers. It’s also a major triumph for American diplomacy. The Russians thought that President Obama would be so starry-eyed for a treaty before his Nobel Prize speech that they could force concessions from him. They were wrong. He held tough and refused to budge. The new treaty reduces the chances of nuclear conflict, but it also gives America a free hand to explore the possibilities of developing a new missile shield. Not a bad way to kill two birds with one stone.

Of course, the treaty is not without its critics. New START’s detractors—such as the Heritage Foundation’s Conn Carroll and Baker Spring—argue that it’s nothing more than words on paper. But the fact of the matter is that New START follows Reagan’s dictate to “trust, but verify.” Under the original START treaty, the United States conducted over 600 inspections in Russia and its satellite countries—Russia only conducted 400 on our soil. New START enshrines similar vigilance in a new century.

At the end of the day, the United States and Russia still possess more weapons than the rest of the world combined. The new treaty provides security for our allies, while assuring a credible deterrent against Russia’s weapons and Iran’s ambitions. As an added bonus, it reduces and secures the overall number of nuclear weapons in the world, so that it is more difficult for loose nukes to fall into terrorist hands. That’s a goal we can all agree on, from Alaska to Alabama.


The final vote in the Senate was 71 to 26, with 13 Republicans and every Democrat voting to ratify the treaty.

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