The tradition of leaving politics at the water’s edge suffered a serious setback last week as Republicans sought to block a Senate vote on ratification of the new nuclear arms treaty with Russia. New Start would limit the United States and Russia to 1,550 warheads and 700 launchers each. It would also provide for mutual verification of disarmament. It is widely regarded as a critical contribution to the national interest and an issue on which Republicans and the Obama administration could agree. But emboldened after victories in November’s elections and unwilling to grant the president a victory of any sort, key Republicans have backed away from the plan. As we go to press, the president made a last-minute push for ratification. We hope his efforts will succeed.
This should not be a partisan issue. The original START treaty was proposed by President Ronald Reagan, passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by President George H. W. Bush. Today, at least one Republican in the Senate, Richard G. Lugar, knows how important it is to ratify the treaty in order to ensure stable relations with Russia. Yet Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican point man on this issue, remains unconvinced; he has proposed waiting until the new Senate is in session to consider the treaty—when a larger Republican caucus will make it much less likely that President Obama will garner the 67 votes needed for ratification.
In addition to setting back relations with Russia, failure to ratify New Start would give foreign governments one more reason to be anxious over the unreliability of the United States as a world leader. It would rob U.S. delegates of their moral authority as they seek to stem the proliferation of nuclear arms in Iran, North Korea and Pakistan. And it would be a giant step backward in a matter that is clearly a personal passion for the president: cracking down on the illicit weapons trade and limiting the ways nuclear arms may be used in warfare.
It is clear from the president’s recent trip to India that the November election results weakened his standing on the world stage. That may not bother the Republican leadership, but it should. In the interest of national security, the United States needs to have a strong voice in world affairs, especially on an issue as crucial as nuclear weapons and especially at a time when terrorists are seeking to acquire this weaponry. If the public allows Republican politicians to combine anxiety over the economic decline with excessive nationalism in international affairs, then the world will be in for very hard times.