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New START: The world is watching

As the Senate considers whether to vote on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) this month, the debate has largely overlooked the most fundamental reason why rapid approval is important. From a technical standpoint, the treaty's lower limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, data exchanges and inspections would make a modest but important contribution to reducing nuclear risks. Of far greater significance, though, is the political message that the Senate's action — or inaction — will send the rest of the world.

As the Senate deliberates, U.S. allies and other world leaders are watching closely. The amount of time and concessions required to secure Senate support for this treaty will reveal much about what the United States values, how it sees its role in the world, and whether its political system can reach bipartisan agreement on a low-cost, low-risk step that is an essential part of a global bargain to prevent proliferation and catastrophic terrorism.

The 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) codified the U.S. commitment to the principle of mutual security through widespread compliance with equitable rules. In that agreement and associated documents, countries that had not already tested nuclear weapons promised not to seek them and to accept international safeguards on their peaceful nuclear programs. In return, the United States and other countries that already had nuclear weapons promised to negotiate in good faith on measures to end the arms race, reduce risks from existing arsenals, and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons. This bargain has been central to global security efforts ever since, but in recent years, many nations have begun to doubt the U.S. commitment to the treaty's core principles. For instance, the 2005 NPT Review Conference failed to reach agreement, in large part because the non-nuclear weapon states did not believe the United States was upholding its side of the NPT bargain.

U.S-Russian agreement on New START right before the 2010 NPT Review helped make that conference a success. The accord was widely welcomed by U.S. allies and other staunch NPT supporters not because of its technical details but because of its political significance. Lowering warhead limits from 2,200 to 1,550 moves in the right direction, but does not fundamentally change the nuclear relationship between the United States and Russia, nor between them and the rest of the world. What mattered most was that the United States seemed to have returned to its traditional support for some form of verifiable legal constraints on all countries' nuclear programs as part of a step-by-step approach to reducing nuclear risks for everybody.

Foreign observers have followed the U.S. ratification process closely enough to know that the treaty provides valuable transparency and predictability without requiring changes to the U.S. nuclear posture beyond those recommended by a bipartisan congressional commission. They know that it does not constrain missile defense or conventional weapons and that the Obama administration has already increased funding to upgrade remaining nuclear weapons programs.

They see several reasons why senators might not be ready to vote for approval after extensive hearings, and none of them make the United States look good. Senators may want to extract the highest possible price before endorsing a treaty that should have passed easily to dissuade the Obama administration from trying to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or negotiating greater changes to the U.S. nuclear posture. Endless delay could be a way to derail this treaty without acknowledging that one opposes any legal obligations or verification that constrains U.S. nuclear choices. The treatment of New START could also signify that Republicans care more about making the president look weak and improving their electoral prospects than they do about national security or international efforts to reduce shared nuclear risks.

In deciding on ratification, each senator should think not only about the pros and cons of this particular treaty but also about the larger message their decision will send the world. Only eight more Republicans who share Sen. Richard Lugar's convictions and political courage are needed. If they do not come forward soon, it will not just be President Obama's popularity and agenda that suffer. Their country's image and ability to gain international cooperation on any issue they care about will be seriously damaged.

Nancy Gallagher is research director at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. Her e-mail is

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