Arms negotiator: Time to ratify START

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate has already held extensive hearings this year on the country’s New START – Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – with Russia and the time is ripe to ratify it, the treaty’s lead U.S. negotiator told a nationwide group of Catholic social action leaders Nov. 30.

Rose Gottemoeller, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, who led the U.S. negotiating team in reaching the new agreement, spoke with about 70 Catholic leaders in a teleconference organized by Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby.

She warned that if the treaty is not ratified before the end of the current Congress, an entire new set of hearings will have to take place next year, possibly delaying a ratification vote by as much as a full year.

She said that at Mass two days earlier, on the first Sunday of Advent, she listened to the “famous passage from Isaiah, ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.’ ”

“And I sat there last Sunday at Mass and thought, ‘What an appropriate season to complete the ratification of the New START treaty,’” she said.

Gottemoeller said claims from some quarters that the Obama administration is trying to rush the treaty through a lame-duck Congress are misleading and inaccurate: In the past six months there have been 18 committee hearings and hundreds of official administration responses to Senate information requests. In September the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommended ratification by a 14-4 vote, with all 11 Democrats and three Republicans in favor.

Since the latest START treaty expired on Dec. 5, 2009, she said, an additional year’s delay in ratification would leave the U.S. and Russia without on-site inspections and other stabilizing and trust-building treaty mechanisms for two years.

After Gottemoeller discussed substantive treaty issues and left the teleconference, Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, addressed church support for the treaty. He urged participants to contact their senators and to ask others in their social justice networks to do the same, urging ratification of the treaty before Christmas.

Colecchi noted that the U.S. bishops have been in the forefront backing the new treaty. He said he could not count how many bishops have sent him copies of letters or e-mails that they have sent to their senators to urge ratification of New START.

The new treaty, signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last April in Prague, Czech Republic, would slightly reduce the number of offensive strategic nuclear weapons deployed by the United States and Russia and slightly reduce the number of launchers each side has.

But analysts see the symbolic and political importance of ratifying the treaty now as going far beyond the relatively limited mutual reductions in strategic attack force that the agreement provides.

Gottemoeller and Colecchi both highlighted the strategic arms treaty as a precursor to a new U.S.-Russian agreement to reduce their tactical nuclear forces.

Gottemoeller also cited the treaty’s role in giving the United States and Russia credibility in their efforts to stem nuclear proliferation.

“As to the urgency of the matter, I would like to stress four points,” she said.

“First, as our defense and intelligence officials have repeatedly stressed, as time passes our knowledge of Russia’s nuclear forces will diminish, and with New START ratified we would have the opportunity for 18 short-notice inspections per year inside the Russian Federation. Without it, we have zero.”

She noted that as of Dec. 5 it would be a year since START went out of effect, and neither Russia nor the United States has been able to verify the other’s compliance since then. “It’s also important to remember that the arms races of the past have been fueled by secrecy, uncertainty and mistrust. So when we don’t have our eyes and ears and inspectors on the ground in the Russian Federation – and vice versa, of course: they come here as well – over time this can fuel secrecy, uncertainty and mistrust,” she said.

Her second point was that “New START is a precursor to making progress on reducing [all] nuclear weapons, especially the tactical weapons that I have heard about again and again as I have gone up to Capitol Hill.”

Senators have repeatedly asked why New START did not address tactical weapons as well, she said, “and the core of the reason why we did not had to do with the fact that over the past year the NATO alliance has been reviewing its own strategic concept and its own policy with regard to nuclear weapons, and we did not want to jam our allies on this.”

The New START is a critical step to move on to those issues, she said. “It’s not only I who believe that. Former National Security Advisor [to Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush] Brent Scowcroft put it very clearly when he said during his own testimony, ‘The principal result of nonratification would be to throw the whole nuclear negotiating situation into a state of chaos.’”

“A third point I’d like to make: I do believe that a delay in ratification could hurt our current, ongoing nonproliferation efforts,” Gottemoeller said. “When we came from Geneva [where final negotiations on the treaty were conducted] to Prague for the signature [by Obama and Medvedev] in April, that gave a tremendous boost to the nonproliferation regime – which was then further boosted by the national security summit that President Obama hosted here in Washington on April 24.”

The signing of New START and the summit in April gave new impetus to the international nuclear nonproliferation conference in May. “In 2005, at the last review conference, some of you who have been working these issues will recall that basically we came a cropper. We could not get a consensus result, the review conference did not succeed,” Gottemoeller said. “But this May we had a very good result with not only a consensus decision of the conference, but also an action plan coming out of it to strengthen the nonproliferation regime.”

It was the April events that provided the momentum for that, she said. She quoted former Defense Secretary [under President Clinton] William Perry: “If we fail to ratify this [New START] treaty, the U.S. forfeits any rights to leadership on nonproliferation.”

Finally, she said, “A significant delay in ratification could impact [negatively] on our improved relationship with Russia, which has brought us really tangible national security benefits, including stronger sanctions against Iran, our ability to supply troops in Afghanistan … and also shoring up our cooperation on the problem of loose nuclear weapons and materials around the world.”

“As we now push to get the treaty on the floor [of the Senate], you’ll hear an argument that somehow we’ve rushed it at the last minute to get it onto the floor,” she said. “But in fact I wanted to underscore for everyone that in fact we’ve had a very deliberate process through the summer, starting when we got back from Geneva. … The treaty went up to the Hill in mid-May, and throughout the summer we have had 18 hearings in three separate [Senate] committees” – Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Special Intelligence – and the State Department has “answered nearly 1,000 questions for the record” from senators or Senate committees on various aspects of the treaty, as well as holding numerous briefings for various senators and their staffs.

“It’s ripe for floor action,” she said.

Colecchi, the USCCB International Justice and Peace official, urged the Catholic activists to seek not just the bare 67 Senate votes needed for ratification of New START. “We need it ratified by a big majority” because “the next vote will be for the comprehensive test ban treaty,” a much more difficult international nuclear arms agreement, he said.

“If we just get a squeaker on the New START, that will not give us a lot of trajectory, shall we say, for the future of arms control, which is equally important in addition to the present,” he said.

For the church, in supporting the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons “our central motivation is faith,” Colecchi said.

The collaboration of the two nuclear superpowers, the United States and Russia, in reducing their nuclear weapons is “key to nonproliferation” of nuclear weapons around the rest of the world, he said.

He noted that both Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, new president of the USCCB, have recently written letters to the Senate urging immediate ratification of the treaty. In addition, he said, huge numbers of U.S. bishops have written personally to their own senators urging ratification.

Colecchi noted that in an action alert in November his office asked Catholic social justice advocates to contact their senators. The Web site includes links to send messages to one’s senators.

The church has long been clear, he said, on its goals of nuclear disarmament and interim measures to reduce nuclear arsenals on the road to disarmament.

Network also has a Web site with background on the treaty and links to contact senators to express one’s views on the treaty.

[Jerry Filteau is NCR Washington correspondent.]

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