Recap: DeSutter-Halperin Debate on New START

Dec 2, 2010

By: Kevin Kallmyer

On Tuesday, the PONI Debates the Issues Series hosted a lively debate on New START. Two experts on the subject debated the merits of the treaty, arguing the question: Should the United States Congress ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty?

Paula DeSutter, the former Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Verification, Compliance, and Implementation, which placed her as the principal policy liaison to the U.S. Intelligence Community on verification and compliance issues, argued that Congress should not provide advice and consent to ratify New START.

DeSutter debated Morton Halperin, a senior advisor to the Open Society Institute and a former director of the Policy Planning Staff at the Department of State, special assistant to President Clinton, senior director for democracy at the National Security Council, and consultant to the secretary of defense and the under secretary of defense for policy, who argued that Congress should provide advice and consent. The debate focused on whether New START will improve or hinder U.S. national security. DeSutter had two core objections to the Treaty: 1) New START is a flawed treaty and 2) New START verification provisions are inadequate.

DeSutter argued that New START is flawed because of potential constraints on missile defense and conventional prompt global strike. The United States, she argued, should not think of its deterrent only in relationship to Russia, but also North Korea and Iran.

The crux of DeSutter’s problem with the Treaty, however, was that New START is a “burlap bag with great big holes in it” with regards to verification. DeSutter went to great lengths to describe the technical problems with the verification regime and why it was impossible for the United States to have complete confidence that Russia is not cheating on the treaty, she argued. Additionally, she said that the United States could not effectively respond to militarily significant cheating because the United States could only respond by increasing the alert status of its arsenal.

Halperin’s main argument was that while the treaty has flaws, those flaws do not add up to a reason to reject the Treaty. New START is a modest treaty that will maintain strategic stability between the U.S. and Russia, while making proactive Russian cooperation more likely in other policy areas, such as Afghanistan and Iran. For Halperin, the potential for greater Russian cooperation does not mean that the United States should sign an agreement not in its interest, but that the benefit of better relations and more cooperation means that the Treaty is in the U.S. interest. Additionally, Halperin argued that while the Treaty is not perfect, the flaws pointed out in New START do not warrant rejection.

In the course of Halperin’s argument, he provided a particularly insightful anecdote from his past experience in the government to demonstrate his point that verification fears are over-inflated. The anecdote is a bit long, but worth the read,

How do you decide whether a Treaty is in the American interest in relation to verification? The question cannot be are we sure that we will have 100% confidence that we would detect the first instance of Russian cheating. The question has to take into account the limits of the Treaty, and some degree of Russian cheating, is it in our interest to have the limit in the treaty, as opposed to not constraining the Russian forces. Our notion of what is acceptable verification goes back to the Reagan administration, it actually goes back before that…because the last time the Joint Chiefs of Staff held the view that a limit was not acceptable unless it could be 100% verifiable was in 1968. At that point, the Administration was planning to put forward a proposal to the Soviet Union to ban the further production of any ballistic missiles or submarines. The Joint Chief’s position then was to we can only include things in the agreement if we could be absolutely certain there will be no Russian cheating. A navy officer came to me one day and said, “Well, we cannot include submarines in the agreement.”

I said, “Why is that?”

He said, “Because the CIA has just come out with its estimate that said the Russians could cheat on an agreement that bans Russia from building any more ballistic missile submarines.”

And I said, “What does it say?”

He said, “It says the Russians could build as many as 3 submarines and we wouldn’t detect it, and only if they build a fourth submarine could we have very high confidence of detection.”

And I said, “How many submarines doe we have now?”

He said, “41.”

I said, “How many submarines do we plan to have 10 years from now.”

He said “41.”

I said, “How many submarines do the Russians have now?”

He said, “I think one.”

I said, “How many do we think they will have in 10 years from now.”

He said, “50.”

I said, “So, you prefer a world where we do not limit this and the Russians have 50 submarines and we have 41, to a world where we have 41, and the Russians have [4] until we can be sure we detect the [5th] submarine.”

And he said, “That’s right, the principle is that you do not include something in an agreement that cannot be verified.”

I looked at him and said, “Well, I think I’m going to win this fight…and I did.”

And the Joint Chiefs changed their position then, to what is clearly the correct position. You ask yourself about each limit, including the warhead limit in this treaty; is it in our interest to have this limit, recognizing that there obviously could be some amount of Russian cheating. The question is how much Russian cheating can there be before we detect it, and the question is what is the strategic significance of that cheating. We have seen no such analysis, because no such analysis that could be presented would be the slightest bit persuasive. The fact is that with the margin of deterrence we have to deter a Russian attack, that the margins of cheating the Russians can do is simply insignificant to the security to the United States.

In conclusion, both debaters did an excellent job discussing the substantive arguments for and against New START, and helped demonstrate that the Treaty currently being considered in Congress is a nuanced and complex topic.

PONI would like to thank Paula DeSutter and Mort Halperin for participating, and everyone who attended. For those of you who were unable to attend, video of the debate can be found here, and pictures from the event can be found here.