STARTing to Look a Little Stupid

While it hasn’t been grabbing as many headlines as Julian Assange, you might’ve heard about the ongoing battles in Congress regarding what to do with the START nuclear arms treaty with Russia. And really, if you’ve been paying attention, you might be led to believe that this treaty was somehow important. The thing is, it really isn’t. As Cathy Young wrote in Reason a couple weeks ago, the whole thing is a bit of a Cold War relic:

Despite Russia’s recent warnings that failure to ratify the treaty could lead to a new arms race, the simple fact is that the U.S.-Russian nuclear rivalry is not nearly as important or as menacing as it used to be. Russia is no longer a superpower, or a putative ideological competitor to the West. It is a regional power that has to scramble for even local dominance, and that commands far more clout through the strategic use of its oil and gas reserves than through strategic nuclear arms. In the 21st Century, our anxieties about nuclear weapons are focused on small rogue states and stateless terrorists, not on the Kremlin and its missiles.

Even during the Cold War era, arms reduction talks and treaties were little more than a ritual dance whose primary value was symbolic: to show that the two nuclear superpowers were negotiating, compromising, and trying to avoid confrontation…

“Ritual dance” sounds about right. New START negotiations are, at this point, purely symbolic. The treaty reduces each state’s stockpiles by 30%. What’s left is still more than enough to completely destroy the world. But then, that’s not really a worry these days, since there is no reason that Russia or the US would attack the other with nuclear weapons circa 2010. What the treaty does is give President Obama some excuse to talk about how the so-called “reset” with Russia is working and lets him point to a “success” in his asinine crusade for a “nuclear-free world.”

Perhaps more importantly, it gives Russia an excuse to sit at the bargaining table with the US as something resembling an equal, a status that it ceased to enjoy back in 1992.

But if the Russians are still stuck in the Cold War, so too, it seems, are many conservatives, who seem to think that ratifying START somehow jeopardizes American security or encourages the criminality of the Russian government, or… well, something or other… Frankly, I can’t quite understand what the big deal is. If it fails to pass, the Russians will huff and puff and go do whatever they please and the world will continue to spin. If it passes, the Russians will have a minor, meaningless victory… and go back to doing whatever they please and the world will continue to spin. Whether or not a new START treaty is ratified at this point has all the import of the question “do you want room for cream in that?” when you’re ordering a cup of coffee.

To quote Young again:

It now seems that, with the help of some cooperative Republicans, START may win passage after all. This will not be a calamity. But the failure to pass it would not have been particularly calamitous, either—and its victory in Congress will not be the achievement the Obama Administration will undoubtedly tout.

Much ado about nothing.


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