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White House pushes for START, but ratification remains uncertain

With ratification of the new START treaty only likely to be more difficult when the next congress takes office in 2011, the White House is pushing for a vote in the lame-duck Senate. But success is all but sure.

Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev after the signing of the new Start treaty in Prague, April 8, 2010

The Start treaty would cut US and Russian nuclear arsenals

On Sunday, US President Barack Obama and his cabinet launched a coordinated public relations blitz aimed at rallying support for the ratification of the nuclear disarmament pact Washington had negotiated with Moscow.

Following a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of the APEC economic summit in Seoul, Obama promised to get the US-Russian nuclear arms reduction deal passed before the new congress takes office next year.

"I reiterated my commitment to get the START treaty done during the lame duck session, and I've communicated to Congress that it is a top priority."

US President George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sign Start in 1991

The original treaty was signed by George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991

One day later, on Monday, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates followed up with a op-ed article in the Washington Post, urging congress to quickly ratify the so-called new START treaty - the successor of the original START initiated by President Ronald Reagan, which expired at the end of last year.

Under the headline "We can't delay this treaty," Clinton and Gates made the case for congress to pass the treaty, arguing that "our national security depends on it."

High stakes

The full-court press by the Obama administration highlights both the importance and the stakes for ratification of new START that would limit American and Russian strategic nuclear warheads to 1,500 respectively, and improve the verification regime.

But analysts are skeptical as to whether the joint appeal by Obama, Clinton and Gates will be enough to persuade Republicans to vote for the new START pact.

Some Republican lawmakers believe the treaty weakens the US, while others feel strongly that the newly elected Senate should be given a chance to vote on the pact. Still others are loathe to give Obama a victory in his lame-duck session, and are looking to renegotiate the treaty entirely.

Ratification requires a two-third majority, or 67 votes in the US Senate. Democrats can command 59 votes in the current Senate; in the next Senate they will only control 53 votes.

"I think it is doubtful that this extremely important step will be taken by the United States," said Karl Kaiser, director of the Program on Transatlantic Relations at Harvard University.

"The atmosphere of hostility and partisanship in the United States is such that the vote that the Senate foreign relations committee took - where a majority actually voted in favor of the treaty - I do not think can be repeated. Even in a lame-duck session,” Kaiser told Deutsche Welle.

While some senior Republican foreign-policy experts, such as Richard Lugar, support START and want to help get it passed, others want to renegotiate the deal or think a vote should be taken by the new congress.

Political football?

The treaty is a solid, if not overly ambitious agreement, and it should be ratified since it would increase US national security, argues Patricia Lewis, deputy director of the James Martin Center for nonproliferation studies in Monterey, California.

The U.S. Capitol and House of Representatives is seen through fall foliage

Ratification will only become tougher when the new Senate is sworn in

"If it gets turned into political football between two parties in the country and has nothing to do with the larger and wider security issues then who is to know what will happen," Lewis told Deutsche Welle.

She added: "I really hope that it does get ratified and as soon as possible. Because right now there are no inspections on strategic weapons. We want to move ahead with better and more wide-ranging cuts with the Russians, and doing that if this isn't ratified would be very difficult."

In light of its experience with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which Moscow ratified and the US didn't, Russia said this time around that it would only ratify new START after Washington had done so.

Therefore, according to Kaiser, "a setback would also be very bad for the long-term goal of getting rid of all nuclear weapons and non-proliferation."

And Lewis said that if the US doesn't ratify the treaty, "the trust in the United States as a negotiating partner, as a partner with whom you can do business, as a partner who can give their word and keep their word ... becomes further diminished. That would be a real pity."

Europe's role

Lewis and Kaiser have different opinions as to how much influence Europe and the rest of the world can have on the ratification of the treaty.

"I think the entire world will disagree if the treaty doesn't get ratified because this is literally what everybody has wanted," argues Kaiser, who believes Europe hasn't done enough to support the ratification of the deal.

"It is not enough to simply agree with the vision of a non-nuclear world. That's very popular in Europe. Nor is it enough to just argue you have to get rid of tactical nuclear weapons, as a number of Europeans countries have done," Kaiser said.

According to Kaiser, Europe needs to give signals to the Americans "at the highest political levels, notably the Senate," that the world expects American leadership in this matter.

But for her part, Lewis isn't sure how useful it is to put more international pressure on the US.

"The United States is a democracy. And this is very much a debate within the United States democracy," she said. "It's a debate for the Senate to have. I think there is a limit to which other countries can have a huge impact on domestic debates."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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