One year ago today, the most dramatic and comprehensive arms-control agreement in history -- known as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (or "START") -- expired. The 1991 treaty, signed by President George H.W. Bush and ratified by the U.S. Senate by a vote of 93-6, was the culmination of President Ronald Reagan's vision and a demonstration of his constant appeal to "trust, but verify" when dealing with Russia.
The United States benefitted significantly under the old START agreement, which reduced the number of nuclear weapons aimed at American cities and allowed U.S. inspectors on the ground in Russia to physically inspect and verify its nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, with the expiration of the START agreement, we have gone a year with neither the framework to trust nor the means to verify Russia's nuclear arsenal, and this gap is endangering our national security.
Over the next several weeks, the Senate has an opportunity to restore this critical security framework and strengthen America by ratifying the New START Treaty.
Over the past year, the U.S. Senate has thoroughly considered New START. In the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we have held 12 open and classified hearings and have heard from high-ranking national security officials of seven former Presidential administrations, including foreign policy heavyweights like Henry Kissinger, James Baker and others. The overwhelming and bipartisan consensus has been clear: the New START Treaty is squarely in the national security interests of the United States.
The treaty has earned the unanimous backing of our nation's military leadership, including the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the director of the Missile Defense Agency. America's military has been joined in its support by six former secretaries of state, five former secretaries of defense, the chair and vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, and seven former commanders of our nation's nuclear arsenal.
The treaty will improve our insight into Russia's nuclear arsenal by returning on-the-ground inspections and critical intelligence gathering of Russian nuclear facilities that stopped when old START expired. When asked about the importance of ratifying New START, America's director of national intelligence proclaimed, "the earlier, the sooner, the better."
The treaty will also further limit the number of weapons aimed at our homeland and reduce the significant costs of maintaining our own arsenal of deployed strategic weapons. Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated, "This is a national security issue of great significance. And the sooner we get it done, the better."
As chair of the subcommittee responsible for NATO affairs, I am also focused on the defense and security of our alliance members who live on Russia's border. They, too, are deeply interested in seeing this treaty approved. Last week, all 28 NATO allies unanimously expressed their hope that the treaty would be ratified soon, with strong statements of support from countries including Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. NATO's Secretary General said, "A delay in the ratification of the START Treaty would be damaging to security in Europe."
The direct national security benefits of the treaty are obvious. There are broader, indirect nuclear issues which must also be considered. With the risk of terrorism growing and rogue states like Iran and North Korea bent on proliferating nuclear materials and know-how, the threat of these dangerous capabilities falling into the wrong hands is escalating.
The United States and Russia -- who together control more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons -- have an interest and a responsibility in leading the international community to curb the threat of nuclear proliferation. If we cannot come to a modest agreement on limiting ourselves to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads -- each weapon capable of leveling cities more than five times the size of Manchester -- how will we ever have the credibility to work with other countries to limit their own nuclear programs or materials?
On Thursday, five former Secretaries of State of the past five Republican administrations expressed support for the New START Treaty and made a compelling case linking this treaty and the threats posed by Iran, North Korea, and terrorists around the globe.
Delaying ratification of a treaty so obviously in our national interest tells the world that we are not serious about the threat of nuclear weapons. New START restores U.S. leadership on the nuclear agenda and increases our leverage to press the international community to secure nuclear weapons and materials around the globe.
There is a long history of bipartisan support for arms-control agreements. The New START Treaty strengthens America and deserves a strong, bipartisan vote in the Senate this year. Delaying ratification is a dangerous and unnecessary gamble with our nation's security.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the chair of the Subcommittee on European Affairs.