The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Arms control and political capital in the U.S.

As the U.S Senate moves closer to a vote on the new START agreement with Russia, many observers are beginning to ask questions about where this leaves the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The CTBT was voted down by the Senate in 1999, towards the end of the Clinton Administration, and has been in a state of limbo ever since. Although President Obama says he will seek ratification of the treaty during his presidency, a vote before the 2012 election is looking increasingly unlikely. This raises a number of questions concerning political capital, choice of battles, and limiting the number of fronts on which you fight them.

For those who are unaware, the new-START treaty limits U.S. and Russian deployed strategic weapons to 1,550 warheads and 700 active nuclear delivery vehicles. These are modest numbers considering the previous limit was 2,200 warheads by 2012. However, ratification of the treaty has been a harder fought affair than many had expected. Sceptics make two main arguments against ratification 1) that it may limit deployment of U.S. missile defence systems and 2) not enough money is being invested in ensuring the safety and reliability of the existing U.S. stockpile. These are weak arguments considering the treaty contains only a fleeting mention of the link between offensive and defensive arms and the Obama Administration has provided the NNSA with a substantial increase in budget to ensure effective stockpile stewardship.

Nevertheless, countering these arguments has made START ratification difficult, and the more difficult it becomes, the harder it will be to put CTBT back on the legislative agenda. One thing the Obama Administration wants to avoid, at all costs, is seeking ratification of the CTBT only to have it rejected for the second time, which could kill the treaty.

The difficulty in ratifying START shows just how challenging the Obama arms control and disarmament agenda is. His 2009 Prague speech laid out ambitious goals and created high metrics for success, but it may be that overall success is now judged on his ability to ratify CTBT. That is not to say Obama did the wrong thing in seeking ratification of START first, the old START agreement expired in December of last year and negotiations have formed part of a relatively successful re-set policy with Russia.

The problem, however, is that political capital is everything in the United States and there is only so much to go around. This means that a trade-off between the two treaties is virtually inevitable (at least in the short-term), which raises the question of whether Obama should have gone further to limit expectations in order to avoid eventual international disappointment and condemnation.

That's a difficult question to answer. His disarmamnet agenda needed to be clear in order to avoid complete meltdown of the nonproliferation regime. But what is clear, is that the U.S. Senate needs to take responsibility and ensure the meltdown has not simply been delayed. That will require it to look beyond party politics. Something that is easier said than done.

1 comment:

  1. This is interesting Tom. What really strikes a chord is the way you put this one issue - an important but perhaps too often overlooked issue - into the bigger political picture.

    It is very important to be aware of political capital and choosing your battles. I recall reading in Stephen Walt's blog (I've been looking for the exact post but can't find it) that the Obama administration might be over-reaching, not only by trying to address too many issues but by not leaving room for unexpected events (such as the BP oil spill, for example) which will need to be properly handled and which will require spending some political capital.

    The economic recovery and the war in Afghanistan on their own are mammoth tasks for a first-term but there is also health-care reform, which will obviously use up an inordinate amount of political capital given the passions it arouses in the US. Unfortunately, there are countless other domestic issues on Obama's plate which cannot be ignored (immigration, defence reform, the publicity surrounding the Tea Party) and perennial foreign policy issues such as the Middle East peace process.

    It would therefore be very easy for issues like START to slide down the to-do list and the President would therefore need help from Congress and the Senate. Unfortunately, as you rightly point out, party politics will always be a factor. Opponents of the administration can easily use an issue like this to chip away at Obama's credibility in voters' eyes.