The United States and Russia have reached agreement on a landmark nuclear arms control treaty, giving President Obama victory on what he called one of his "top national security priorities" and also imparting "gravitas" on a young president finding his way in the international arena.
Obama, flanked by Secrertary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, made the announcement after finalizing details in a Friday morning telephone conversation with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. The "most comprehensive arms control agreement in nearly two decades," Obama said, will help both nations leave behind the dark days of the Cold War and build "a more secure future for our children.
"We've turned words into action. We've made progress that is clear and concrete," the president said. "And we've demonstrated the importance of American leadership -- and American partnership -- on behalf of our own security, and the world's."
The agreement, if ratified by the Senate, would cut America's and Russia's deployed nuclear warheads by about one-third, down to 1,550 each -- 74 percent lower than the limits set by the 1991 START
treaty, which this deal is supposed to replace. It will also substantially reduce ICBM and submarine missile launchers and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear weapons. The two leaders plan a signing ceremony in Prague, the Czech Republic, on April 8.
Obama, who set his vision for a nuclear free world in Prague last April, said the new START treaty falls short of that ambitious goal, but is "pivotal" and demonstrates that America and Russia "can cooperate effectively."
"With this agreement," Obama said, "the United States and Russia -- the two largest nuclear powers in the world -- also send a clear signal that we intend to lead ... and to ensure that other nations meet their own responsibilities." He didn't have to say it, but the "clear signal" was almost certainly meant for the government in Iran, which is pursuing its own nuclear agenda.
With his dramatic announcement in the White House briefing room, Obama appeared to be on a political roll. In less than a week's time, he presided over passage of the most significant health care reform since Medicare's enactment in 1965, a complete overhaul of the college student loan program, and a deal with Russia on nuclear weapons.
"It took patience, it took perseverance, but we never gave up," Obama said, using a line that could have also applied to his struggle for health care reform.
The new treaty, in nonbinding statements, also touches on the delicate subject of the United States' long-standing plans to build an anti-missile shield. Russia asserts its right to withdraw from the pact if it decides that an American missile defense plan develops in a way that threatens its security, the New York Times
reported. The U.S., for its part, said it could go ahead as it sees fit, but said any such program would not be aimed at Russia.
Kenneth N. Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security,
told the Times "the larger meaning is the delegitimazation of nuclear weapons." Obama and Medvedev can go to Prague, Luongo explained, and say, "here's what we did on disarmament. Now we need to get serious about nuclear terrorism and nuclear materials."
After signing the new deal next month, Obama said he would host more than 40 nations in Washington the following week to address the problem of securing existing nuclear weapons "so that they never fall into the hands of terrorists."
He'll also have another challenge on Capitol Hill, convincing the Senate to ratify the treaty. Obama met earlier this week with Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and the panel's top Republican, Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). He said his aides were already consulting other senators from both parties as "we prepare for what I hope will be strong, bipartisan support to ratify the new START treaty."
One of the selling points in the Senate should be the verification process, which gives each nation the right to inspect the other side for compliance. "This is a good day for America and our security," said Hillary Clinton. The secretary of state said U.S. negotiators had relied on the Russian proverb that President Reagan frequently quoted in dealing with Mikhail Gorbachev: "Trust but verify."
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen, also at the White House briefing, put it another way. "Through the trust it engenders, the cuts it requires, and the flexibility it preserves, this treaty enhances our ability to do that which we have been charged to do: protect and defend the citizens of the United States."