Republican Senator Jon Kyl has, perhaps unintentionally, focussed attention on the global consequences of his withdrawal of support from the bill to ratify the strategic arms reduction treaty, New START, which President Barack Obama signed with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in April 2010. The treaty would reduce the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear stockpiles from the current limit of 2,200 warheads to 1,550 each, and would create new mutual inspection procedures for verifying compliance. Mr. Kyl now says there is insufficient time to resolve the outstanding issues around the treaty before the 111th Congress closes on January 3, 2011; as he is the Republican whip in the Senate, up to a dozen other Republicans could refuse to back the ratifying bill. Mr. Obama, for his part, is understandably keen on the Senate ratifying the treaty during the present session; ratification will need 67 of the 100 Senate votes, and in the next Congress the reduction in Democrat strength from 56 to 51 seats will make the going much harder for the administration.
The implications of a failure of Senate ratification far outweigh the details. To begin with, the steady improvement in Washington-Moscow relations, which started with Mr. Obama's arrival in the White House, will be halted. Russia's vastly experienced Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has said the lower house, the Duma, would not ratify the treaty unless the U.S. Senate was certain to ratify it. Secondly, as U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden points out, if the treaty is not ratified there will be no verification system between the U.S. and Russia. Other aspects of Russo-American cooperation, such as Russian participation in multilateral exchanges with Iran, would be jeopardised. Mr. Kyl's recent move is therefore both perverse and disingenuous. He has himself been involved in Washington briefings on New START for several months, and the Senate has held 21 hearings on it. Bipartisan supporters of the treaty include six former secretaries of state, five former secretaries of defence — besides the incumbent Robert Gates — and several former senior military commanders. Furthermore, it is not as though Mr. Obama is a peacenik: he has promised $80 billion to modernise the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal, and offered another $4.1 billion to assuage Republican concerns. By endangering ratification at this late stage, Mr. Kyl and other Republican Senators are acting on a narrow, partisan, and confrontational agenda that seems motivated more by a desire to destroy Mr. Obama's presidency than by any interest in reducing global tensions, which are exacerbated by the very existence of monstrously large nuclear arsenals.