The US is keen to sign a successor to the START treaty with Russia that would slash both nations' nuclear arsenals. Significant for Obama is not so much the treaty itself, but its global and domestic implications.
The United States and Russia have more than enough nukes for any purpose
It will be a while before a successor is found to the existing Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) which expired on December 5, but both the US and Russia stressed the existing agreement would remain in place until a follow-up is found. More often than not missing a deadline to reach a binding international agreement is a sign of serious trouble that a compromise may be unattainable not just now, but for good. Just think about the difficulties trying to hammer out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol before the climate conference in Copenhagen or the eight years of failure in signing a trade agreement in the so-called Doha round.
Not so with START. The Obama administration has always pushed for a quick follow-up to START - and by scrapping the planned missile shield in Eastern Europe cleared a major hurdle that could have made it much more difficult to get an agreement with Russia - and continues to be confident and upbeat that a deal will be reached, even if it that didn't happen before the old treaty ran out.
"Our negotiators in Geneva... are working very hard to try and get a draft agreement," US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said on Monday. "What we're saying now is that we're hoping to get this draft agreement by the end of December."
Russian officials also announced that the two countries were closing in on a deal.
"Intensive work on preparations for the signing are coming to a close," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Deal before Oslo trip
Despite playing down expectations, the Obama administration would very much like to close the deal this week, so the president could sign the new disarmament treaty before he travels to Norway next week to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
While the follow-up to START and the Nobel Peace Prize are each important in their own right, they both highlight Obama's much broader agenda announced in Prague earlier this year: to abolish all nuclear weapons.
US and Russian negotiators aim for a deal before the end of the year
Because of the START expiration date, reaching an agreement with Russia on a successor serves as logical launching pad for Obama's zero nukes mission. "It just so happens that the START agreement was running out and so that was the obvious first step," Gale Mattox, a professor at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, told Deutsche Welle.
Talking to Deutsche Welle, Daniel Keohane, a defense expert with the EU Institute for Security Studies, added "if you don't have Russia on board, it's very hard to convince anyone else. It's a very important first step. And it should make it a little easier to convince others to do the same and reduce their stockpiles."
None of the experts interviewed for this article during the European Union's Institute for Security Studies recent EU Washington Forum conference doubts that the Obama administration will in fact reach a deal with Russia, simply because it is in both Washington's and Moscow's interest to slash the number of nuclear arms.
More nukes than needed
"At the moment we, and the Russians as well, have frankly more than we need for the purposes for which anybody would wish to have them," William Taft IV, a former US ambassador to NATO and deputy defense secretary, who currently holds the Warren Christopher Professorship of the Practice of International Law and Diplomacy at Stanford University, told Deutsche Welle. "They were built for another time during the cold war and so we can do with less and we can save the expense, but not just the expense, but simply the danger of having too many of these things."
The basic framework of the successor to START was already agreed between President Obama and his Russian counterpart at a summit in Moscow in July. Both sides pledged to slash the number of nuclear warheads for each country to between 1,500 and 1,675 over the next seven years. The number of delivery vehicles for each side will be cut to between 500 and 1,100. The existing treaty limits each side to 6,000 warheads and 1,600 delivery vehicles.
What the exact limits in the START follow-up will look like is pretty much a guessing game that also depends on what is counted as deployed warheads and delivery vehicles. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that the follow-up to the START treaty could cut Russia's deployed strategic warheads by approximately 40 percent and the US' deployed warheads by up to 24 percent.
Approval by Congress expected
A follow-up to START will have to be ratified by Congress
Whatever the final number, said Daniel Hamilton, director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, "I think it's quite significant."
The START issue may prove to be one of Obama's easier steps of his larger disarmament agenda. He needs to get the comprehensive test-ban treaty through Congress before next year's midterm election that could end the Democrat's majority there and he plans to convene a huge international nuclear security summit next spring in Washington.
Signing a quick START follow-up with Moscow would therefore be an important sign of success domestically for Obama. And unlike a possible Copenhagen climate treaty it also stands a good chance of being ratified by Congress. "I don't anticipate it to be a major problem, unless the Republicans again decide that this is political ammunition that they can use against the administration," Hamilton told Deutsche Welle. "But at the moment I would think depending on the terms of any new agreement that it would move through Congress."
Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge