As White House Assures Senate on Missile Defense, Obama Makes Reaganesque Offer in Prague

Created: April 08, 2010 08:38 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

While you were sleeping, Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev traveled to Prague and signed the New START nuclear-arms reductions accord, pledging to reduce their countries’ nuclear arsenals by 30 percent and cap the deployed missiles, submarines and bombers that deliver nukes at 700. The task before the White House now is overcoming initial GOP misgivings in the Senate that the still-unreleased treaty will in any way impact U.S. plans to construct a missile shield in eastern Europe, something the Russians aren’t too pleased about. And the first step in that task falls to Brian McKeon, a longtime aide to Vice President Biden.

Owing to his familiarity with the Senate’s foreign-policy pulse, McKeon is one of the top White House strategists for New START ratification. Even before the text of the accord is publicly available, McKeon writes a post for the White House blog about why no one should freak out over “unilateral” Russian language about missile defense:

One issue relates to U.S. plans for missile defense. The Russian government made a “unilateral statement” in connection with the treaty signing that indicated that if there is a qualitative and quantitative build-up in the U.S. missile defense system, such a development would justify Russia’s withdrawal from the New START Treaty.

There is nothing particularly novel about this kind of unilateral statement. In the long history of arms control agreements between the United States and Russia (and before that the Soviet Union), dating back to the Nixon Administration, the two countries have frequently issued such statements at the end of a long treaty negotiation. Sometimes these statements would make public a political understanding between the parties. Other times they would represent one party’s view or interpretation of an issue; in many cases, the other party would respond to give its own view.

The Russian statement falls into the latter category. It is described as a “unilateral” statement for a reason – the Russian government made a statement about missile defense with which the United States did not, and does not, agree. If we had agreed to it, the issue would be put into the treaty text, or issued as a “joint” statement. In fact, the United States issued its own unilateral statement, indicating that it plans to continue to develop and deploy its missile defense systems in order to defend itself. Neither the Russian statement nor the U.S. statement is legally binding on the other party. But each side is making its intentions clear — to the other party, and to the world.

It is worth noting that the Soviet government made a similar unilateral statement in 1991, when the predecessor START treaty was signed. At that time, the Soviet government said it would be justified in withdrawing from the START Treaty if the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty). As it happened, in 2001 the United States did withdraw from the ABM Treaty. The Russian government objected, but did not withdraw from the START Treaty.

As it happens, at the signing ceremony, President Obama talked about a different kind of possible Russian sentiment on missile defense:

President Medvedev and I have also agreed to expand our discussions on missile defense. This will include regular exchanges of information about our threat assessments, as well as the completion of a joint assessment of emerging ballistic missiles. And as these assessments are completed, I look forward to launching a serious dialogue about Russian-American cooperation on missile defense.

So: a serious attempt at starting down the path to zero nuclear weapons in tandem with Russia. And an offer to Russia about partnering with the U.S. on missile defense. Is this President Obama in Prague or President Reagan in Reykjavik?