Yesterday, in Prague, President Obama signed a new START deal with Russian President Medvedev. In strategic and military terms, the treaty does not make much difference. I think it is generally good to reduce nuclear overkill, but the treaty allows both states to retain 1550 strategic nuclear weapons. That’s plenty for deterrence purposes and still a long way from zero.

Potentially, the 30% cut in nuclear weapons is symbolically important as the U.S. tries to convince other states (like India) that it is serious about its NPT Article VI commitments. Russia shares this interest as well. It makes a nice bookend with the “negative security assurances” announced earlier this week.

Interestingly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Louisville right now, speaking as I type (I’m watching the stream) in support of the treaty. She flew to Louisville from Prague and must be exhausted.

Why would she do that?

That’s easy to answer.

Clinton is speaking at the McConnell Center (for Political Leadership, though that part of the name seems to have disappeared from the website). Indeed, the Secretary was introduced by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. This speech is an obvious effort to make sure that Republicans do not block the new START accord in the Senate. After all, a treaty requires a supermajority in the Senate. Indiana’s Dick Lugar is apparently on board, but the administration will need six more Republicans and clearly wants many more.

They’re apparently aiming for the big enchilada, McConnell. At minimum, they don’t want him to lead a strong opposition movement though he reportedly has concerns about scaled-back U.S. missile defenses. Clinton pointed out in the speech that this treaty does not limit U.S. plans in those areas (though to please Russia, the administration has changed the policy in an earlier action).

The Secretary pointed out in her speech that recent arms control accords (post cold-war, basically) have been approved overwhelmingly, with 90+ votes in support. George W. Bush’s arms accord had zero votes against. Clinton did not mention the CTBT, which her husband failed to get through the Senate. It was a rare outright defeat for a treaty as presidents usually avoid pushing agreements that will fail.

In his opening remarks, Senator McConnell pointed out that Clinton is the 6th Secretary of State to speak in the Center that bears his name. This is not a coincidence. He’s proud of the Center and has used his position on committees or leading his party to leverage speakers. When he had great influence over foreign aid, the University hosted ambassadors from both Israel and Egypt (separately). At the time, guess which states received the most foreign assistance from the U.S.? Hint: Israel is still #1.

Most of the audience questions after the address pertain to horizontal proliferation (Iran, especially), which I think everyone recognizes is a more important problem than the precise size of the U.S. and Russian arsenals. In her address, Secretary Clinton mentioned “next week’s 40-plus head-of-state nuclear-security conference in Washington.” That event will directly address the broader proliferation problem.

In short, Hillary Clinton was performing political theater for Mitch McConnell. Her script is only indirectly related to the more important foreign policy concerns that are to be addressed in a completely different political context. However, the Obama administration needs McConnell’s tacit support because Article VI of the NPT links horizontal and vertical proliferation. From the U.S. point of view, “getting to zero” is a two-level game and McConnell is a key player in it.

Share