The Cold War may have ended, at least in a practical sense, and terrorism may be the national-security focus of the day, but it would be a grave mistake to ignore relations with the one other nation on earth that has a nuclear arsenal to rival that of the United States.
The lame-duck Senate reportedly is ready to consider ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, in coming days. Senators ought to vote to ratify.
It's not hard to imagine a world where the United States has no way to peer into the Russian nuclear arsenal; no way to inspect silos or count warheads on each missile. That's because we're living in such a world, and we have been since the old START treaty expired in December. That's not a good situation, either for the nation or the world. The Soviet Union may have crumbled two decades ago, but tensions remain, and Russia's precarious economy and political situation make it doubly important to keep a close watch on its nuclear arsenal.
It's difficult to understand the objections to New START or the reasons why it was not ratified long ago. This should not be a liberal-conservative battle zone. The new treaty cuts each side's arsenal by 30 percent, to 1,550 strategic warheads each. Republican presidents agreed to much steeper reductions in earlier treaties. Some senators are worried that the treaty would handcuff the United States in its efforts to deploy a nuclear missile shield. That is not true. The Russian preamble to the treaty contains such language, but that is not a binding part of the treaty.
Others, most notably Arizona Sen. John Kyl, are demanding President Barack Obama dedicate much more money toward updating and improving the nation's nuclear arsenal once the treaty is ratified. So far, the president seems open to this. News reports this week said White House officials were ready to negotiate with Kyl.
The concessions in this treaty are minor compared to the importance of having U.S. inspectors once again gaining physical access to Russian missile sites. President Ronald Reagan negotiated the first on-site inspections under his policy of "trust, but verify." That principle remains just as important today.
The worry is that newly elected tea party conservatives will be opposed to the treaty because of the perception it weakens the nation's position against Russia. More seasoned Republican senators may worry that a lame-duck vote in favor of the treaty would hurt them politically when they stand for re-election in coming years.
This is one vote that shouldn't hinge on false political perceptions. The one sure tip-off that ratification is important is that leaders of the U.S. military support it and believe it enhances national security. Ratification should be high on the to-do list of the outgoing Senate.