Weapons of Mass Disagreement: The Decline of Arms Control in the U.S. Senate

The Senate must reassert its constitutional authority to advise on and ensure the success of further arms control.

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The Senate retains the power to advise and consent to treaties, an important tool in the foreign policy arena, yet it has seldom seized upon the former half of this responsibility by providing input during the crafting of treaties. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Senate’s Arms Control Observer Group (ACOG) filled an important role in treaty negotiations that led to the successful passage of two landmark arms control treaties, only to give way to partisan politics following the Cold War. The Senate must reassert its constitutional authority to advise on and ensure the success of further arms control.

The Glory Days: The INF Treaty and START I

In the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration began negotiations with the Soviet Union to eliminate intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe. To assist with the negotiations, the Senate formed the ACOG in 1985 to serve as an advisory and observation body during the treaty negotiations in Geneva. As Senator Sam Nunn, a member of the ACOG, remarked: “I think the effort here is to have the Senate fulfill both halves of its constitutional responsibility, not only the consent… but also the advise half.” Senators could informally communicate political realities and the domestic win-set of a potential treaty to both U.S. negotiators and their Soviet counterparts, reducing the chance of political hang-ups in Washington. Senators also developed expertise on arms control, receiving classified briefings on the specifics of strategic goals, weapons capabilities, and verification procedures to name a few. Finally, the ACOG was important in establishing bipartisan consensus on arms control, as the body was chaired by two members of each party and in totality represented a wide range of constituencies across the country. Each senator involved in negotiations in Geneva could take back the lessons learned from the talks and explain the ins and outs of the treaty to fellow Senate caucus members.

The negotiations eventually produced a document, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, that eliminated all systems with ranges between 500 km and 5,500 km. The treaty was introduced to the Senate in early 1988. Due to the ACOG’s expertise on the treaty, combined with the administration’s lobbying efforts, “killer amendments” designed to prevent the treaty’s efficacy introduced by anti-Russian hawks were easily defeated by wide margins on the Senate floor. The INF Treaty passed with a vote of 93-5 on May 27, 1988. The success of the ACOG continued as the Cold War moved into its final days, paving the way for the Senate to continue to fulfill its advise role on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) in 1991 during the George H.W. Bush administration. Again, senators oversaw negotiations in Geneva and served as surrogates for the administration to verify that the Soviets negotiated in good faith and answered questions about the treaty. START I similarly sailed through the Senate in 1991 with a vote of 93-6.

The Dark Days: The CTBT, CWC, and New START

After the Cold War ended and interest in bilateral arms control waned, the ACOG disbanded and institutional expertise in arms control became dependent on a senator’s interests. A large group of bipartisan surrogates were no longer present for arms control negotiations that could shepherd the treaty through the Senate. As a result, arms control suffered. The Chemical Weapons Convention fell prey to partisan politics when the Clinton administration had to disband the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency as a concession to achieve ratification by a 74 to 26 vote margin in 1997, dangerously close to the 66 votes necessary for treaty ratification in the Senate. Two years later, the Senate flat out rejected the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by a vote of 51 to 49, a devastating blow for nuclear arms control and one of the biggest treaty setbacks since the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles following World War I.

The most recent arms control treaty to enter the Senate was New START, the successor to START I that would continue U.S. and Russian strategic arsenal reductions. Following the treaty’s negotiation in April 2010, it immediately ran into roadblocks. Although the Democrats controlled a majority of seats in the Senate, political fallout from the previous year’s Affordable Care Act entrenched partisan sentiment in Congress, which made reaching the minimum votes necessary for ratification difficult. Republicans hurled accusations about the contents of New START, specifically that it would limit missile defense capabilities, although they were not covered by the treaty. Compromises had to be made on almost every aspect of the treaty, including promises by the Obama administration to undergo an entire recapitalization of the nuclear enterprise and to pursue additional missile defenses in Europe. The treaty was ratified by a thin margin, 71-26 in late 2010.

The Way Forward

The Senate’s future role on arms control needs to be to both advise and consent on treaties, rather than simply consent. To do this, overcoming the partisan drives and dearth of institutional knowledge on arms control, the Senate should establish a successor to the Arms Control Observer Group for treaty negotiation and ratification. The goal of this group should be to build the same sort of bipartisan support for treaties that helped shepherd the INF Treaty and START I. While there is no surefire way to ensure its success, there is reason to believe that this new group will help ameliorate the lack of expertise and insider knowledge of arms control when it comes time for the ratification debate. This will smooth over friction between the administration and the Senate, as well as address any misinformation propagated by a small number of senators looking to extract political concessions on the treaty.

The future of arms control in the United States remains a delicate affair. Between Russia’s alleged violation of the INF Treatyuncertainty regarding New START’s extensionstalled diplomacy over North Korea and continued assaults in Congress against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, prospects for the future of successful arms control are slowly dimming. By involving senators in the process through a follow-on to ACOG, the steady decline of arms control initiatives could be reversed, reasserting U.S. leadership on this critical issue.

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