Despite months of negotiations on Capitol Hill, Senate approval of President Obama’s New Start arms control treaty is in serious jeopardy. And it raises the question: Are treaties, and in particular arms control treaties, even worth the trouble anymore?
In fact, most of our international objectives on arms control and other matters can be met much more easily with domestic actions.
For much of the world, treaty ratification is a simple matter. In parliamentary systems like those in Britain and France, ratification is virtually automatic, because the government also controls the legislature. In China, it is a mere formality ordered from the top.
But the same treaties that are so easily ratified in other countries are, for good or ill, often left to languish in the Senate, where 67 votes are needed for approval. The result is international frustration with American leadership, as many widely shared goals — from children’s rights to a ban on nuclear weapons testing — are held hostage by a small group of senators, who often represent a tiny percentage of the American public.
Treaties on arms control, with elaborate legal definitions and verification procedures, were necessary during the cold war because the Soviet Union was a closed society, in which military programs were closely guarded secrets. And given the high stakes involved, treaties helped ensure that large-scale cheating could be detected in time to respond.
But that era is long gone. The freer flow of information makes American and Russian military programs and arms negotiations far more transparent, rendering formal treaties less important. At the same time, the ratification process can create a perverse effect: in the case of New Start, Republican senators led by Jon Kyl of Arizona are holding up the treaty to force the Pentagon to increase spending on the modernization of nuclear weapons and associated delivery systems.
Their demand comes despite the more than $180 billion already committed to modernization over the next decade and assurances from retired military commanders and former secretaries of defense that the treaty wouldn’t undermine America’s nuclear deterrent.
The trouble is that spending more money on nuclear modernization would undercut a key purpose of the treaty, which is to demonstrate to the world that the two countries are reducing their reliance on nuclear weapons — and thus strengthen our leverage against states like Iran and North Korea, which seek to enter the nuclear club. Ratification, in short, creates a platform for partisan grandstanding wholly at odds with the treaty itself.
Fortunately, there is an alternative: we could achieve roughly the same results without signing a treaty. International negotiations would still be needed, but instead of a binding treaty, the administration could commit to pursuing Congressional action to accomplish the agreed terms. The effect would be the same, but the process would be much easier at home, requiring a simple majority in the Senate, instead of two-thirds.
This strategy is already being used on climate policy. After the Senate failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change that was negotiated during the Clinton administration, it became clear that any treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions would be a lost cause. In recent years negotiators have continued to pursue international climate agreements, but with the understanding that adherence would occur through domestic energy legislation that the rest of the world could then examine and assess.
The same model could work for nuclear arms control. If the Senate continues to stall on New Start, Moscow and Washington could simply set the same level of 1,550 strategic warheads through domestic legislation and exchange deployment plans consistent with the treaty’s other provisions.
Crucial verification procedures, especially on-site inspections, could be established through executive agreements, which may not even require legislative approval. In any case, it is hard to imagine Congress opposing a bill to monitor Russia’s nuclear forces.
Further arms-control efforts planned by the Obama administration — reducing strategic nuclear forces, prohibiting nuclear weapons testing and controlling the production of special nuclear material — could be handled in the same way.
True, the Russians might prefer the legal imprimatur of a treaty. But given the alternative, they would probably be willing to adjust.
For reasons that go beyond the Senate, the era of treaty-making may largely be over. Thanks to decades of global efforts, the international system has most of the rules it needs in the areas of human rights, terrorism, crime and nonproliferation. What’s more important is for individual governments to muster the will to enforce them. Treaties still have their uses, but they should be reserved for rare cases, like the creation of a mutual defense pact or perhaps President Obama’s vision for the elimination of nuclear weapons. In most circumstances, the bright light of national laws will work just fine.
James P. Rubin, who teaches at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and was an assistant secretary of state for public affairs during the Clinton administration.