The significant Republican gains in the Senate in Tuesday’s election are likely to undermine one of the administration’s greatest foreign policy successes, and in the process they will worsen U.S. relations abroad and harm U.S. security interests. After the Republican gain of six seats in the Senate, including Mark Kirk of Illinois, who will be seated immediately, the arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, known as START, has much less of a chance of passing during the lame-duck session before January.
Many Republican Senators are reluctant to vote on the treaty before next year, and despite President Obama’s hopes for ratification, there are almost certainly not enough Republican votes right now. After the start of the new Congress, the treaty will be as good as dead. While foreign policy had essentially no role in the midterm-election debates, victorious Republicans will mistakenly see Democratic losses as a popular repudiation of both Obama’s domestic and foreign agendas, and some Republicans will interpret the result as support for their own brand of confrontational and aggressive policy overseas.
Despite the near-universal support for the treaty from the military, most arms control experts, and most pre-George W. Bush former national security officials, it has become an article of faith in Republican ranks that the treaty weakens America’s nuclear deterrent and limits missile defense in Europe. Neither of these claims is remotely true, but that has not stopped leading figures in the conservative movement from making the acceptance of these claims into the first post-election litmus test.
The chances for START’s ratification are already so bad that Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, will not allot any floor time to the treaty during the lame-duck session unless the White House is certain that it has the necessary 67 votes. The committee in the Russian Duma responsible for foreign affairs has already withdrawn its recommendation for ratifying the treaty in anticipation of Republican intransigence.
By constitutional design, treaty ratification requires broad consensus in the Senate, and the Republican leadership in both houses has made it clear they have no intention of reaching agreement with the President’s party. The mood of the GOP at the moment is such that any bipartisan agreement, no matter how sensible, has zero chance of picking up more than a handful of votes. After this year’s primary season that saw the defeats of two sitting Senators, every incumbent Republican will be wary of appearing too accommodating with the administration, and newly-elected members will be eager to establish themselves as harsh critics of administration decisions.
The new START has been one of the major concrete achievements of the administration’s “reset” policy towards Russia. Failing to ratify it will be a significant blow to U.S.-Russian relations, which one assumes is part of the reason for defeating the treaty, and it will wreck the one mechanism available to the United States for verifying the nature and extent of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Even if the Kremlin understands that the administration remains committed to improving relations, the treaty’s defeat will reflect the extent of anti-Russian sentiment in the American political class, and that cannot help but sour relations. Despite the potential danger of unchecked nuclear proliferation that the treaty’s defeat represents, Republicans seem satisfied to bring the treaty down to wreck one of Obama’s international accomplishments and to sabotage the “reset” that most on the right prefer to misrepresent as “appeasement.”
Since the beginning of the “reset,” leading Republicans such as Mike Pence and Jim DeMint have vilified it as a sell-out of American allies in eastern Europe and the Caucasus, and they have been echoed by 2012 presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty. Like the claims against START, these arguments have been baseless. U.S. support for NATO allies and former Soviet republics alike has not changed, and Russia’s neighbors are probably more secure thanks to the thaw between Moscow and Washington than they were when they were being used as front-line states against Russian influence.
Regardless, Republicans are showing that they will keep pursuing a rejectionist “anything but Obama” approach to foreign relations, which will necessarily keep anti-Russian demagoguery as a central part of Republican foreign policy arguments. As long as Obama remains identified with conciliatory handling of major international relationships, the GOP’s anti-Obama reflex will force them to define their preferred policies in terms of clashing with major and rising powers around the world. Ultimately, that may work to Obama’s advantage when he runs for re-election, but in the meantime it will make the work of repairing America’s relations abroad much more difficult.