Over the last few days, the conservative media and blogosphere in the U.S. and Britain have been roiled by WikiLeaks documents suggesting that, in order to secure Russia’s agreement to the New START Treaty, the U.S. agreed to disclose information about the Trident missiles it transfers to Britain. Media Matters predictably claims that there is nothing untoward involved, that it’s all an invention of the “right-wing media.” And P.J. Crowley argued that New START simply “carried forward and updated this notification procedure” from the 1991 START Treaty.
Yet a careful reading of the 1991 and 2011 treaties reveals significant differences between the U.S.’s obligations vis-à-vis Britain and Russia in these treaties. These differences all tend in one direction: they reduce the secrecy surrounding the UK’s nuclear deterrent, a secrecy that the UK has sought to preserve for the obvious reason that secrecy enhances the effectiveness of the deterrent. But, as is often the case with these partial disclosures, the questions they raise are at least as troubling as the answers they provide.
Three such issues stand out. First, we have no idea how the U.S. will fulfill its disclosure obligations under New START, or what else it has promised to reveal about Britain’s (or other allies’) forces. Second, by committing to reveal information not just about U.S.-made missiles but also about Britain’s storage arrangements for those missiles, the U.S. effectively asserts that Britain is a suitable subject for U.S.-Russian bargaining. No more direct refutation of the fundamental premise of NATO — that its members are sovereign states — could be imagined. And third, the WikiLeaks cable makes the broader point that the Russian strategy is to force the administration to choose between more arms-control agreements, which it knows they want badly, and its alliance commitments.
Frankly, when this story first broke, my thought was that it was the worst rupture in U.S.-UK nuclear cooperation since the 1962 Skybolt fiasco, which revolved around the U.S.’s cancellation of a nuclear-capable air-to-surface missile on which Britain had planned to base its nuclear force. But the parallel is not exact. Skybolt reflected U.S carelessness and incomprehension, not ill-will or simple lack of concern. As Richard Neustadt summed it up in his classic study, Alliance Politics: “The reason is not far to seek. Those who play at governing in London or in Washington are playing different games by different rules.” Skybolt broke the pattern of cooperation, but that pattern was rapidly rebuilt at Bermuda through a deal that gave Britain access to U.S.-made Polaris missiles.
New START, on the other hand, continues the pattern of this administration’s disdain for traditional American allies, and the pattern of its desire to reset relations with autocracies around the world at the expense of those allies. It is almost quaint that New START uses the term of art for our relations with Britain, for if the administration continues on in this vein, we will not have “patterns of cooperation” to worry about much longer.