Sent to lawmakers last week by President Barack Obama, the treaty replaces its 1991 predecessor and cuts each country's stockpile of deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 -- a reduction of nearly one third.
The treaty has been hailed as a milestone in relations between Washington and Moscow and is considered a signature achievement in Obama's nonproliferation agenda.
It has also come to represent the successful "reset" of U.S.-Russian relations. On the day Obama submitted the treaty to Congress (May 13), the United States and Russia released a joint statement saying that the treaty "in effect, marks the final end of the Cold War period."
Obama has urged the Senate to pass the treaty by the end of the year so as to roughly coincide with planned ratification in the Russian parliament.
Ratification Process Begins
The process in Washington began with today's committee hearing and will require a two-thirds majority -- or 67 votes -- in the Senate. Securing that margin will require Republican votes, which are expected but not assured in Washington's current deeply partisan climate.
Speaking alongside Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen noted that previous arms reduction treaties have been supported by both political parties.
"Is the United States better off with a strategic arms agreement with the Russians or without it? The answer for successive presidents of both parties has always been 'with an agreement.' The U.S. Senate has always agreed, approving each treaty by lopsided, bipartisan margins," he said. "The same answer holds true for new START. The U.S. is better off with this treaty than without it, and I am confident it is the right agreement for today and for the future."
Mullen said the treaty's required weapons cuts, coupled with a "transparent" verification regime, will make the country more secure. He said it will not hinder U.S. plans for a missile defense system, which Russia has objected to.
Some Republican senators have suggested that the treaty's acknowledgment of an "interrelationship" between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms amounts to setting limits on the planned shield system.
They have also pointed to an accompanying unilateral statement by Russia which says the treaty "may be effective and viable only in conditions where there is no qualitative or quantitative build-up in the missile defense system capabilities of the United States of America."
Mullen said the "Russians signed this treaty knowing full well that we intend to proceed with missile defense."
Clinton said ratifying the new START would serve as a foundation for increased cooperation.
The treaty's arms reduction requirements concern only strategic nuclear weapons -- the larger, more destructive kind -- and not smaller tactical nuclear weapons.
Clinton said that the chances of a tactical weapons deal with Russia would be "zero" without the new START ratification.
With it, she said, a deal would "still but hard, but at least is possible." Further strategic weapons cuts, she added, would also require the new START as a precedent.
She also stressed the broader implications of ratifying the treaty -- namely, a boost to the credibility of the United States as a leader on nonproliferation.
"By bringing the new START treaty into force, we will strengthen our national security more broadly, including by creating greater leverage to tackle a core national security challenge, nuclear nonproliferation," said Clinton. "Now I am not suggesting that this treaty alone will convince Iran or North Korea to change their behavior, but it does demonstrate our leadership and strengthens our hand as we seek to hold these and other governments accountable."
Clinton said the treaty's broader implications were already evident. Indeed, she used the hearing to announce that a draft resolution for a fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran over its suspect nuclear program had been agreed by the P5+1 negotiating group, which includes Russia.
"I think there is no doubt that our cooperation and the intensive efforts that so many of us, along with our Russian counterparts, put in to the START negotiations over the last year is part of the reason why we plan to circulate a draft resolution to the entire Security Council today that includes Russia and China and their agreement on the wording of the text," she said.
Russia, which has sizeable economic ties to Tehran, had previously expressed doubt over the effectiveness of additional sanctions.
Clinton said that "adversaries or potential adversaries" would not be pleased that the major world powers are united in their goal of punishing states with non-civilian nuclear ambitions.
"This is a real setback for them," she added.
written by Richard Solash