The new strategic arms treaty with Russia is a gift for Republicans, not as a political weapon against President Barack Obama, but as the fruit of their own labors. The treaty is a logical, modest step down the long road of strategic nuclear arms control, led by Republicans from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan. In all those years of the Cold War, whether by détente or confrontation, they sought to restrain an existential threat and create rules and stability in a world of mistrust and uncertainty.
The new treaty goes further toward those goals than the hawks of yesteryear could have ever imagined. Republicans ought to vote for ratification and tell voters they fulfilled Reagan's greatest wish, to lock in lower levels of the most dangerous weapons on Earth. Reagan often talked about "peace through strength," and this treaty measures up to the slogan.
The might of the United States as a strategic power remains unrivaled, while Russia's forces are a shadow of Soviet days, long overdue for modernization. Sure, in global politics, Russia loves hardball and will remain stubborn and aggressive. Its current leaders have not entirely broken free of the Soviet mindset. But we should not treat Russia as a threatening Evil Empire. It is a troubled petrostate with nukes, a country of enormous potential suffering a long and deep humiliation. The treaty is a good way to fasten down some predictability in the years to come.
In the Senate, Democrats are expected to vote for the treaty, but it will need eight Republicans for ratification. So far it is not clear which direction the Republican minority will choose, though the treaty has the support of Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, as well as a string of leading Republican statesmen and officials, including former Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker.
There may be a clue for today's Republicans in Reagan's twilight struggle with Soviet communism.
What's often forgotten about the Cold War is how easy it was to suspect the worst. The United States was engaged in a decades-long battle of immense proportions against a perplexing, secretive enemy. Forty percent of the CIA's resources were devoted to watching the Soviet bear. The fear of the other side gaining some kind of strategic advantage was palpable in the arguments of the day, as when a small group of American conservatives began warning darkly in the late 1970s that Soviet leaders were preparing to fight and win a nuclear war.
"We're already in an arms race, but only the Soviets are racing," Reagan declared in an Aug. 18, 1980, campaign speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Chicago. "They are outspending us in the military field by 50 percent and more than double, sometimes triple, on their strategic forces."
Reagan then quoted Paul Nitze, a leading voice against the 1979 SALT II treaty, as having said, "The Kremlin leaders do not want war; they want the world." Reagan declared: "For that reason, they have put much of their military effort into strategic nuclear programs. Here the balance has been moving against us and will continue to do so if we follow the course set by this administration."
"The Soviets want peace and victory," he added. "We must understand this and what it means to us. They seek a superiority in military strength that, in the event of a confrontation, would leave us with an unacceptable choice between submission or conflict."