START Follow-On as Beginning and End

I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts about why I felt so underwhelmed by Friday’s announcement that the U.S. and Russia had agreed to terms on the START follow-on treaty. Certainly, the optics work well for both sides. President Barack Obama gets a foreign policy feather to go along with health care reform in his victory cap. And Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gets to show what the good cop in Moscow’s good cop/bad cop routine looks like. And arriving at the upcoming NPT conference with the treaty in hand certainly helps Obama avoid a major embarrassment.

But I’m not convinced it will assure that Obama advances his NPT agenda at the conference, which faces pretty stiff challenges regardless. I’m also not convinced the treaty deserved the kind of emphasis it was given within the “reset” of the bilateral relationship with Russia, where it offered Moscow more leverage than it was worth, given the case for cuts in the nuclear arsenal on both sides. (To his credit, Obama held out against Russian efforts to exploit that leverage regarding missile defense.)

How to include Russia in the European security architecture still seems like the defining issue regarding the Russia reset, but that’s inherently not a bilateral issue. As for nuclear arsenals, the urgent upgrades to existing treaties are in short- and mid-range delivery systems . . . in South Asia — in other words, how to integrate India, Pakistan and eventually China into the nuclear arms control regime.

I don’t mean to be a hater, since I’d be the first one to argue that last week was a good week for Obama. But if, as the name suggests, the START follow-on is a beginning, I hope it’s the beginning of an end: of locked-in thinking regarding nuclear arms control, in particular, and U.S.-Russia relations, in general.

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