In a few hours, President Obama will arrive in Prague, Czech Republic, to sign the new strategic arms control agreement with Russia -- called the New START Treaty -- in a ceremony with President Medvedev of Russia. This comes just over a year after the President gave a speech in Prague where he stated a commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. He stated then that we may not reach this goal in his lifetime, but committed to take concrete steps toward that objective.
The treaty the President plans to sign is one important step forward. It will require the United States and Russia to reduce -- by 30 percent below the levels in a treaty signed in 2002 -- the number of nuclear warheads they have deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-based ballistic missiles, and bombers. It also provides various mechanisms to allow each side to monitor compliance with the treaty by the other country, including on-site inspections and exchanges of data about our respective nuclear arsenals. This kind of transparency promotes strategic stability between the two largest nuclear powers in the world.
Soon the treaty will go to the Senate, where it must receive support from two-thirds of the chamber before it can take effect. Even though the Senate has yet to see the treaty -- the text will be released to the public soon (The treaty and its protocol are now available.) – some issues are already being debated in Washington.
One issue relates to U.S. plans for missile defense. The Russian government made a “unilateral statement” in connection with the treaty signing that indicated that if there is a qualitative and quantitative build-up in the U.S. missile defense system, such a development would justify Russia’s withdrawal from the New START Treaty.
There is nothing particularly novel about this kind of unilateral statement. In the long history of arms control agreements between the United States and Russia (and before that the Soviet Union), dating back to the Nixon Administration, the two countries have frequently issued such statements at the end of a long treaty negotiation. Sometimes these statements would make public a political understanding between the parties. Other times they would represent one party’s view or interpretation of an issue; in many cases, the other party would respond to give its own view.
The Russian statement falls into the latter category. It is described as a “unilateral” statement for a reason – the Russian government made a statement about missile defense with which the United States did not, and does not, agree. If we had agreed to it, the issue would be put into the treaty text, or issued as a “joint” statement. In fact, the United States issued its own unilateral statement, indicating that it plans to continue to develop and deploy its missile defense systems in order to defend itself. Neither the Russian statement nor the U.S. statement is legally binding on the other party. But each side is making its intentions clear -- to the other party, and to the world.
It is worth noting that the Soviet government made a similar unilateral statement in 1991, when the predecessor START treaty was signed. At that time, the Soviet government said it would be justified in withdrawing from the START Treaty if the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty). As it happened, in 2001 the United States did withdraw from the ABM Treaty. The Russian government objected, but did not withdraw from the START Treaty.
Finally, a word about withdrawal clauses in treaties. Some observers have expressed concern about a withdrawal clause in the New START Treaty; they are concerned that Russia would threaten to withdraw as a means of pressuring the United States not to continue to deploy its missile defenses. There is nothing unusual about withdrawal clauses in treaties. Most treaties that the United States enters into have one -- for the simple reason that we want an escape hatch if circumstances change that affect our national interests. In fact, most treaties have a simple withdrawal clause, allowing a country to exit the particular treaty for any reason or no reason. The withdrawal clause in the New START Treaty has a higher bar; it gives a party the right to withdraw if it decides that “extraordinary events” related to the treaty have “jeopardized its supreme interests.”
The Russian statement does no more than give the United States fair notice that it may decide to pull out of the New START Treaty if Russia believes our missile defense system affects strategic stability. We believe it doesn’t, and the President has made clear that he is committed to continuing to develop and deploy that system.
Brian McKeon is a senior adviser to the NSC and Deputy National Security Adviser to the Vice President. Prior to coming to work in the White House, he served as Chief Counsel for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where he advised then-Senator Biden on the consideration of dozens of treaties.