Why the international silence on New START?

The New START agreement between the US and Russia may have only two signatories, but in truth it is a global Treaty that is at the core of the struggle to stop the uncontrollable spread of nuclear weapons. Why then is the rest of the world, including Canada, so reticent to press the American Senate to ratify this nuclear arms control milestone?   

Richard Burt, who as a conservative Republican was Ronald Regan’s arms control chief, and who now campaigns energetically for nuclear disarmament, told the PBS News Hour last night that “there are only two governments in the world that wouldn’t like to see this treaty ratified, the government in Tehran and the government in North Korea.”[i]

 The Senate Republicans seem tenaciously committed to lifting spirits in Tehran and Pyongyang, but why is the rest of the world staying on the sidelines?

Preventing the expansion of nuclear arsenals in places like North Korea, and preventing their spread to places like Iran and well beyond, is inextricably linked to disarmament progress in the major powers. It’s a bilateral Treaty, but we’re all stakeholders of the first order. The point was made with particular eloquence this past weekend by Ramesh Thakur (Political Science Prof at the University of Waterloo and former Senior Vice Rector of the United Nations University and Assistant Secretary-General). In a speech to the annual meeting of the Canadian Pugwash Group he said:

“Either we aim for controlled nuclear reduction and abolition or we learn to live with slow but certain nuclear proliferation and die with the use of nuclear weapons. In public debate, we must confront all who dismiss us as naive and utopian dreamers to confront this stark reality. If, rather than commit to nuclear abolition, they are prepared to sign on to a world of cascading proliferation with many more countries acquiring nuclear weapons, including North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others as their preferred alternative, let them say so publicly and accept the resulting public opprobrium. If not, force them into the corner of asking: so who is being unrealistic? The idea that a self-selecting group of five can keep an indefinite monopoly on the most destructive class of weapons ever invented defies logic, defies common sense, defies all of human history. With realists like these…”

Reluctance to wade into the debilitating spectacle of Washington’s political gridlock is obviously part of what’s behind the reluctance to come to the energetic defence of New START (the designation given to the US-Russia agreement to reduce deployed nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550 each). Because it can’t be doubts about the Treaty itself.

States outside the US, especially the 188 that are States Parties to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), made their support ratification of the New START clear through the final document of last May’s Treaty Review Conference. All endorsed the US-Russian commitment in Action 4 of the “conclusions and recommendations” section of the final document: that is, “to seek the early entry into force and full implementation of the Treaty….” States also encouraged the two major nuclear powers “to continue discussions on follow-on measures in order to achieve deeper reductions in their nuclear arsenals.”[ii]

That was also the last reference by the Government of Canada to New START. In his speech to the Review Conference, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said that “…we welcome the New START agreement between the United States and Russia as an important step toward a world without nuclear weapons.”[iii] Since then, nothing.

In recent days, the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre has said Norway awaits the ratification of New START.[iv] And the German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, used his Nov 11 address to the German Bundestag to note that “we very much hope that this Treaty will be ratified by the US, notwithstanding the changes wrought by the congressional elections, so that it can come into effect.”[v]

But these are rather modest, and isolated, appeals. There is still time for a louder set of international voices to join the domestic American voices urging support for the beleaguered Treaty.

The Arms Control Association in Washington has been a leader in the fight for ratification and it recently published the Treaty endorsements of a very long list of current and former military leaders and former Senior Government Officials.[vi]

General Kevin Chilton, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, spoke to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 16, 2010: “If we don’t get the treaty, [the Russians] are not constrained in their development of force structure and… we have no insight into what they’re doing. So it’s the worst of both possible worlds.”

Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor in the Nixon and Ford administrations, spoke to the same Committee on 25 May 2010: “The current agreement is a modest step forward stabilizing American and Russian arsenals at a slightly reduced level. It provides a measure of transparency; it reintroduces many verification measures that lapsed with the expiration of the last START agreement; it encourages what the Obama administration has described as the reset of political relations with Russia; it may provide potential benefits in dealing with the issue of proliferation.”

At York University a group of students linked to the Global Zero campaign is urging Prime Minister Harper to get more actively on board. The students are circulating the following petition:

“Like most Canadians, we, the undersigned, are deeply concerned about the nuclear threat. We are convinced that Canada must be in the forefront of the ongoing international efforts to reduce nuclear weapons to Global Zero. The new US-Russian START Treaty signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev on April 7 in Prague is an important step toward this goal. Mandating 30% reductions in the world’s biggest nuclear arsenals, this Treaty is in the best interests of Canada and the world. Now that it has been submitted to the US Senate for consideration, we urge you to communicate to President Barack Obama, in a form you might find appropriate, Canada’s unequivocal support for the Treaty’s ratification.”

 It is still possible to see and sign the petition online at http://www.globalzerocanada.org/get-involved/sign-the-petition (in the meantime the list of signers to date, along with their comments, has gone to the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and the leaders of the other  parties in the House of Commons). 

 The stakes are high, but the attention has been strangely muted outside Washington.



[i] “Can New START Treaty Survive Partisan Divide in Congress?” PBS NewsHour, 17 November 2010.  http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/july-dec10/start2_11-17.html.

[ii] 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Final Document (NPT/CONF.2010/50 Vol. I), p. 20.  http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=NPT/CONF.2010/50  (VOL.I).

[iii] 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Statement by the Honorable Lawrence Cannon, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada, NEW YORK, MAY 3 2010. http://www.canadainternational.gc.ca/prmny-mponu/canada_un-canada_onu/statements-declarations/general_assembly-assemblee-generale/03.05.2010_review_conference_dexamen.aspx?lang=eng

[iv] Address at the Kazakhstan–Norway Conference on Nuclear disarmament strategies, non-proliferation and export control, Oslo, 12 October 2010. http://www.regjeringen.no/en/dep/ud/aktuelt/taler_artikler/utenriksministeren/2010/kazakhstan_conference.html?id=620691.

[v]Foreign Minister Westerwelle’s statement to the German Bundestag on NATO’s Strategic Concept, 11 November 2010.  http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/diplo/en/Infoservice/Presse/Reden/2010/101111-BM-BT-Nato-Rede.html.

[vi] “U.S. Military Leaders and Bipartisan National Security Officials Overwhelmingly Support New START,” Arms Control Association, 12 November 2010. http://www.armscontrol.org/issuebriefs/bipartisanNewSTARTSupport.

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