START Or STOP: Is Nuclear Arms Control Lost In USA’s Domestic Chaos?


By Yogesh Joshi

The trickiest foreign policy issue before the Obama administration after the midterm elections is ratification of the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). Signed in April this year, after protracted negotiations between the two Cold War archenemies, the treaty seeks to provide a much needed push to global nuclear disarmament. The treaty envisages the reduction of actively deployed nuclear warheads to 1550 which can be deployed on no more than 700 delivery vehicles, like missiles and bombers. However, the most critical feature of the new agreement is its verification mechanism. Since the expiry of the previous START treaty in December last year, the two countries have no means to verify each other’s nuclear forces. The new treaty will provide a way out of this uneasy situation, which had made decision makers and military leaders in the USA uneasy. The rout of the Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate has however changed the dynamics. Has the new START come to a full stop?

The Democrats lost heavily in the House of Representatives, but more crucially, for purposes of the ratification of the New START treaty, their losses in the Senate will be the game changer. The ratification of any international treaty requires a two-thirds majority in the US Senate which means 67 senators should agree before a treaty can become law. With the loss of six seats in the Senate, the Democrats have only 51 seats (as compared to 57 earlier) and the Republicans have 46 (earlier 41). This change means that for the Democrats to get START ratified, vocal Republican critics of START, like Senator John Kyl of Alabama, have to be won over. Earlier, the involvement of fringe players in the Republican Party may have allowed the passage of the bill. Taking note of the recent rhetoric of Senator Kyl, this has become impossible.

Another element in domestic politics, which has informed the problems surrounding the ratification of the New START treaty, is the feeling among Republicans that the election results are a rejection of President Obama’s leadership, which includes his inability to deal with the steadily deteriorating financial condition in the country and his foreign policy agenda. By construing his losses in the midterm elections as a rejection also of the arms control treaty with the Russians, critics of New START have created an atmosphere of paranoia. Not only has it not allowed those in the Republican ranks who support the treaty to speak out openly, it has also confused the Democratic rank and file.

This wave of post-election disavowal of the New START is relevant to the debate over whether tabling the agreement for ratification in the lame duck session of the Congress is constitutionally appropriate to reflect public opinion. A lame duck session is the period between the midterm elections in November and the official investiture ceremony of the new members of the Congress that takes place in March the following year. This session does not incorporate the new election results. The lame duck session will therefore provide an opportunity to the government to get the New START ratified while it still enjoys a more favourable position in the Senate. Many Republicans have called such tactics illegal. However, what comes to mind immediately is why the US government waited for so long, almost six months, to get the treaty ratified in the Senate. One can argue that more pressing problems did not allow the government to be more active on this front. However, it is important to note that New START was Obama’s flagship idea in the foreign policy domain just as health care was in domestic politics. If the New START does not get ratified, President Obama would surely need to answer some difficult questions.

The loss of New START in the domestic chaos of the politically divided United States would be the end of Obama’s crusade against nuclear weapons, which he promulgated in his Prague speech. The ratification of the treaty will decide whether there is hope for his agenda of global nuclear disarmament which is facing a bleak future. The recent revelations of the extent of sophistication which North Korea has achieved in its nuclear weapons program and the continued defiance by Iran are indicators of the turmoil facing the nuclear disarmament agenda. If the CTBT and Kyoto Protocol are any indicators, the US Senate has been known to decide the fate of major global agendas in the past. This time it is the turn of nuclear disarmament.

Yogesh Joshi, Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and may be reached at [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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