Members of the Senate are currently debating whether or not to hold a vote on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), and some Senators say they are not prepared to vote at this point. To inform the current debate, I spoke on November 22 with Ambassador Linton Brooks, who served as Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) from 2003 to 2007. Ambassador Brooks also has extensive experience in arms control treaties, having served as the assistant director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and as chief U.S. negotiator for the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
Roth: As someone who was the lead negotiator for the first START agreement under the H.W. Bush administration, and as the former head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) under George W. Bush, what is your take on New START? Should the Senate support the treaty?
Brooks: I think the Senate should support the treaty. New START does several things for us. First, it’s important as part of the overall relationship with the Russian Federation. It’s an example of the two countries working together on something complicated and contentious and reaching an acceptable result. And it therefore has contributed to the improvement of relations—which is usually called “reset,” and which we’re seeing benefits from in other areas. The second thing it does is provide transparency about what Russia is doing. And transparency leads to predictability, and predictability leads to stability. So it provides clarity about the nuclear relationship moving forward. Those are the two chief reasons in the treaty itself. But we’ve now gotten ourselves in a situation where New START has become a package along with some very important nuclear weapons modernization work. So for all those reasons I think that it’s clear that the Senate ought to support the treaty. I see no down sides at all.
Roth: In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Republican Senator Jake Garn stated, “The treaty provides a vehicle whereby some Democrats not usually known for their support of strategic systems can bring themselves to commit to modernization, while at the same time some Republicans not usually known for their support for arms control can bring themselves to vote for ratification. Conversely, rejecting the treaty may well break this consensus and result in no modernization of our forces.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
Brooks: I think that’s an insightful statement and I do agree with it, particularly with regards to modernization of the nuclear weapons complex, which we’re now calling the “nuclear security enterprise.” The reason is that we’re going to be faced with substantial pressure on budgets in the coming year. I think there is no question the administration is committed to modernization. It is committed to the promises it made in the updated 1251 report. But it’s unrealistic to assume that some of the more liberal members of Congress are going to vote for increased funding for nuclear weapons programs unless they are part of a package with New START. So I think that the path to modernization of the complex runs through approval of New START. And conversely, it’s very clear now that the path to approval of New START runs through modernization of the complex. So I think, as they usually are, Scowcroft and Garn are absolutely right on this one.
Roth: When you were NNSA administrator how did Congress react to proposals for modernization of the nuclear stockpile and infrastructure? How rare is the current consensus on nuclear weapons modernization?
Brooks: I think what’s unusual about the current situation is the extremely high level of support on the part of the administration. When I dealt with Congress, all these issues largely got decided at the level of subcommittees. There wasn’t a lot of cabinet support and there wasn’t all this sort of really visible White House support for modernization. So while I’m pleased with what we got done in the last Administration, we did not have the high-level support that you’re seeing now. I think that the current strong internal consensus, which we were working toward in the last administration, is quite remarkable and an extremely good thing. And I hope that it will carry forward.
Roth: The administration has made significant increases in the budget for nuclear weapons programs and is seeking more funding in future years. How do these budgets compare to those you worked with or during the Cold War?
Brooks: Well, I can’t remember for the Cold War and I’m not sure the Cold War is a completely valid comparison. We were building new weapons then. We were doing a lot of things that we aren’t doing now. But these budgets include significant increases over the budgets that I worked with. I’ve said publicly that I would have killed for these budgets. But what never gets quoted is the second part of that statement, which was about the high-level support that they represent. One of the really remarkable things about the last year is the amount of high-level attention there has been in the executive branch to nuclear weapons issues.
Roth: The administration recently provided senators with a detailed budget preview on funding for nuclear weapons. How common is it for an administration to do so at this point in the budget process?
Brooks: I have never seen this done before. I don’t know if it’s very unusual or actually unique. Certainly I never saw this happen in the past, and it is part of the administration’s pattern of supporting the weapons program. If you look at the continuing resolution, for example, it provided for—at the administration’s strong urging—funding at the level of the President’s budget. Continuing resolutions almost never do that. They always provide for the lower of the previous year or what either house has passed.
So I think that what you are seeing here are two things: You’re seeing very strong support for the budgets on the part of the administration and then you’re seeing its willingness to make that support clear by providing additional details that it would not normally share with the Congress until the budget goes up in February. I don’t know enough about the overall history of U.S. budgeting to know if it’s unique, but I do know I’ve never seen it before.
Roth: How long did the Senate take to consider START I? Is there time to consider New START before the end of the year?
Brooks: With START I, the Senate began hearings before the final protocol was completed. This was the protocol that converted it into a five-party treaty, the so-called Lisbon Protocol. And so we had about a year of hearings. In terms of order of magnitude, this is the same amount of time that the Senate has spent on New START, which is a much less complicated treaty.
I hope there is time for the Senate to consider the treaty this year. The Senate and Congress generally have a lot on their plates. But my recollection is this needs no more than a couple of days of floor debate. I’m hoping we can find time for that before the end of the lame duck session.
I think delay hurts us. It hurts the credibility of the United States, it imperils the reset with Russia, and it gives more time for the consensus on funding to come apart. The Senate has to work its own procedures, but I would be very hopeful that the Senate could act now.
*Special Thanks to Teri Grimwood for transcribing this interview.