An Obama administration failure to get ratification of the so-called New Start treaty – as now seems probable – will inject damaging tensions into U.S. relations with Germany and other key NATO allies in Europe.
The trouble will start at the NATO summit meeting in Lisbon this weekend as leaders seek to sign off on a new Strategic Concept that includes a still-unsettled debate about how to conciliate nuclear deterrence and missile defense – two options that the U.S. wants the alliance to preserve.
That outcome will almost certainly be achieved at the summit, but now there will be more debate and more doubts about the future of both options because of doubts in Germany and other European countries about the Obama administration’s ability to deliver on a “reset” with Russia and on the White House’s larger agenda of nuclear disarmament.
Although the New Start treaty is a bilateral accord that only affects the U.S. and Russia, it is a key political factor in U.S. ability to win broad support among Europe’s leaders and public opinion on a set of inter-related issues, including:
- the future of nuclear deterrence as a guarantor of allied nations’ security, a pillar of allied security
- alliance-wide support for a missile defense system that covers the territory of all allies and also can use their territory for basing elements of the new “phased” deployment of a defensive network designed to expand and improve over time
- pressures gathering steam in Europe for further disarmament steps that would reduce or remove the so-called “short-range” nuclear weapons in Europe. These include a small number of fighter-bombers in Europe capable of delivering U.S. nuclear bombs and, on the Russian side, an arsenal of thousands of nuclear-tipped short-range missiles that worry Europeans who live within range of warheads that could explode by accident or be used for political pressure on Russia’s perimeter.
All of these issues come together under the umbrella of relations between Washington and Moscow and perceptions of whether the leaders in these two countries are on course for more cooperation and more confidence-building or instead more distrust and greater inability to work together. As European diplomats often put it, “Europe has decided that it needs to have a good working relationship with Moscow in areas of mutual interest, and it will be awkward if Washington acts in ways that make it harder for the three players – Russia, the U.S. and Europe – to find sensible common ground.
The Obama administration embraces this European notion of constructive co-existence on the broader European continent. But its credibility will be dealt a major blow if it fails to deliver on its promises to the allies of delivering the New Start treaty. That outcome seems likely after the announcement this week by Senator Jon Kyl, a key Republican leader on this issue, that he opposes a vote on treaty ratification during the “lame-duck” session of Congress this month and next. Prospects for ratification appear likely to diminish even further next year in a new Senate, where the Democratic majority will be smaller and it will be even harder for Mr. Obama to win over even more Republicans to reach the 67 votes (out of 100 members) needed for a treaty ratification.
For months, the Obama administration has produced U.S. strategists to praise the treaty, describing it as vital for Western security as a way to restore the mutual inspections of nuclear arsenals instituted by the old Start treaty. Inspections have ceased since that treaty lapsed. In a last-minute bid to win over Mr. Kyl, seen as a key figure in passing the new pact, the administration promised him last week that it would invest an extra $4 billion in modernizing the existing U.S. arsenal of nuclear warheads.
But Mr. Kyl finally sided with other American conservatives who have argued that the treaty, which Mr. Obama has signed, did not obtain enough guarantees about transparency from Moscow and that it contained language that might hamstring U.S. plans for missile defense systems.
The Obama team – including Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates – have all insisted that failure to ratify the treaty will weaken the security of the U.S. by blocking on-the-spot inspections of the Russian long-range nuclear arsenal. For Europeans, the concern is that the U.S. snub to the treaty will worsen the hard-line attitudes associated with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The White House will try to convince both Russians and Europeans that the roadblock in the Senate is simply the result of Republicans playing crude domestic politics and trying to block any measure that could be chalked up to the credit of the Obama administration.
Now it will probably be harder at this weekend’s NATO summit to work out a consensus on how to maintain strong support for nuclear deterrence and for a stronger missile defense system. Critics – in Germany and other European countries that have stockpiles of U.S. nuclear bombs – have charged that the combination of stronger missile defense and “modernization” of nuclear warheads could escalate tensions with Moscow and even touch off a new arms race.
Earlier, Ivo Daalder, U.S. ambassador to NATO, told reporters that one of the major issues will be whether the alliance is prepared to defend “against armed ballistic missiles coming towards NATO territory” – adding that “alliance leaders will answer that question positively, we expect.”
That outcome may be harder to attain – or could even have to be fuzzed – in a new atmosphere of doubt about the ratification of New Start, which had been portrayed by the Obama administration as a first step in a process to advance a series of arms control measures.
Some allies, notably Germany, who have qualms about the U.S.-led plan for NATO-wide missile defense have sought to “sell” the measure to reluctant political allies (in Berlin, notably the Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partners) by tying the missile defense into an overall package that stresses arms reductions.
Ultimately, Washington stands to get its way, partly because of support from France and Britain, both countries have nuclear weapons of their own and they will want NATO’s Strategic Concept to describe missile defense as a “complement” to nuclear deterrence and a step opening the way to “lesser reliance” on nuclear weapons.
But the outcome may be less clear-cut than U.S. officials had hoped a week ago. One compromise might be for the alliance to promise to undertake a NATO-wide study about its overall “nuclear posture” – an exercise that might require many months and thus gain time.
-- European Affairs