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Is the new START small potatoes?


President Obama and President Medvedev signed a successor to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) today in Prague. Some experts have already called this treaty insignificant. NYU Professor Stephen F. Cohen, on the MSNBC program "Morning Joe," said that if it was a movie, it would be called, "The Good, The Small, and the Unstable." Pavel Podvig, an arms researcher from Russia now at Stanford, called the treaty, "creative accounting...They found a way of making reductions without actually making them, and they were happy to accept that because nobody wanted to go to more serious measures."

Are they right that the cuts are insignificant?

It's true that the counting rules don't result in deep reductions. However, I don't think the reductions are the point--the significance of the treaty has to do with its verification measures.

If ratified, both sides will be able to conduct ten inspections a year to verify publicly available numbers. Having hidden nuclear facilities is a violation of the treaty. These inspections build confidence at a bureaucratic level for both the United States and Russia.

This cooperation is not insignificant considering that Russia and the United States have many security challenges. On Afghanistan, terrorism, and the possibility of a nuclear Iran, the United States and Russia share long-term strategic goals but have short-term differences. Although both the U.S. and Russia want an Afghanistan free from extremism, a Kremlin official leaked today that the U.S. should close its airbase in Kyrgyzstan--a crucial supply line to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Without an arms treaty, the inevitable policy disagreements between the U.S. and Russia would be far more likely to escalate into larger rifts.

Think of the new START treaty as similar to the health care reform which was recently signed into law. A case can be made that the health care reform bill was insignificant--it left in place the employer-sponsored system, has modest cost controls, takes effect too slowly, etc. The health care reform bill nearly died several times in Congress. But all agree that it was a big political lift for President Obama. Also, any future reform will likely be easier since President Obama illustrated that the system can be reformed.

The same can be said for the new START. The reductions are indeed quite modest. The deal almost fell apart over Russian intransigence on missile defense--all Russia got was some language in the preamble to the treaty, which is not binding. It took President Obama threatening to walk away to get this treaty done. Like health care reform, the treaty took way longer than expected to sign. But better a treaty than no treaty--would anyone feel safer if the world's largest nuclear powers had no treaty together?

Like health care reform, there are very reasonable critiques of the treaty. But there is little evidence to suggest that President Obama could have gotten a better treaty--one senior administration official said on the condition of anonymity, "We wanted to go lower...This was a negotiation with the Russians, not the Arms Control Association."

The new START is available online to read--the treaty itself is 17 pages, but the protocol is 165. Anyone who makes outlandish claims about it should read it first--it is actually quite modest. Unlike the 2,000+ pages of health care reform, it will be hard to demagogue because of its relative brevity.

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(AP photo: Mikhail Metzel)


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