Lessons Learned from the New Start Campaign

This article by Ploughshares Fund Government Affairs Representative Robert Leonard was featured by the Connect U.S. Fund

The Senate’s advice and consent to New START in late December was the right choice for America’s national security. Closing out a year that began with U.S. leadership at the Nuclear Security Summit and the NPT Review Conference, New START ratification is the latest victory for a determined political center intent on advancing a 21st century understanding of nuclear security.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) reduces American and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads by roughly 30 percent beyond current levels and re-establishes a critical process to verify each side’s compliance with those changes. What this means in layman’s terms is that New START deals constructively with the inherent dangers posed by the world’s two largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons (i.e., the U.S. and Russia have ninety-five percent of nuclear weapons).

One needs to go no further than the deeply bipartisan list of supporters to understand New START’s centrality to U.S. national security: every living Secretary of State, nine former heads of U.S. Strategic Command, and senior national security experts from each of the last seven presidential administrations – trusted names like Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, and Madeleine Albright. As Admiral Mullen wrote in a letter to the Senate expressing the unanimous view of America’s military leaders, “Through the trust it engenders, the cuts it requires, and the flexibility it preserves, this treaty enhances our ability to do that which we in the military have been charged to do: protect and defend the citizens of the United States.”

New START’s reaffirmation of Russian and American leadership on nuclear weapons is important well beyond preventing mutually assured destruction. As Michael Krepon of the Henry L. Stimson Center notes, “Reducing nuclear dangers requires top down leadership. If the two largest holders of nuclear weapons can't agree on structures, rules, and monitoring arrangements for arms reductions, all of the other rules governing nonproliferation become weaker.” Had New START gone down in defeat, so would have any hope of leading the world to deal effectively with threats like Iran and North Korea.

But as any astute observer of Washington will know, far too many sound policies die a quiet death in the district, whether from neglect or the short-sighted politics of the day. Indeed, the declared opposition of Senate leadership in the form of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) should have been New START’s death knell. So it is useful to make some initial comments about what made this treaty ratification campaign a success.

First, the treaty had strong “inside/outside support” – most importantly from senior active-duty and retired military leaders. These military validators are firmly behind a 21st century view of nuclear weapons and the inherent danger they pose in a post-9/11 world. The retired military leaders never let a charge go unanswered and consistently translated complex issues into layman’s terms. They fought for the center of the debate with tenacity and, once it was in their grasp, they never let it go.

Second, there was an engaged citizenry. This is often extremely difficult to gauge from Washington, but grassroots pressure of all stripes was consistent and significant. Constituents were motivated not only by the risk of a new, destabilizing Cold War without the treaty, but by a very solid understanding of today’s challenges and how little nuclear weapons can do to address them. They “get” this same consensus just as our military does.

Finally, there’s a lesson here in backbone: in a hyper-partisan environment, treaty proponents perfectly calibrated the collegial grit necessary to finish what they started. Led by a forceful push from President Obama, unserious critics were forcefully refuted while those working to advance the national interest were treated with the respect they deserve. Ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) castigated opponents with comments like, "There are still thousands of missiles out there. You better get that through your heads," even as he delayed the process some thirteen times to permit his Republican colleagues to contribute to the final product. Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) integrated every serious suggestion he could while making it clear that treaty-killing amendments were unacceptable. This collegial grit won accolades on both sides of the aisle and thirteen ayes on December 22 when New START passed the Senate by a 71-26 vote.

In short: the Senate’s advice and consent to New START affirms that America’s center is united, strong and determined in its vision for 21st century nuclear security. Whether on future U.S.-Russian negotiations, Iran or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, nuclear security experts should be encouraged that principled security arguments can win the day.