Last week, I co-authored a piece on “The Hill Congress Blog” that argued for revitalizing a bipartisan organization in the Senate called the Arms Control Observer Group. To summarize, the Observer Group assumed the responsibility of overseeing the Executive Branch’s negotiation of arms control treaties like the Intermediate Nuclear Forces, the Strategic Arms Reduction, Conventional Forces in Europe, and Chemical Weapons Convention treaties. It also oversaw U.S. and Russian Defense and Space talks and, negotiation on confidence and security-building measures.
The Observer Group was a joint idea between Senate Republican and Democratic leadership, but was also welcomed whole-heartedly by the Reagan administration. Senators Dole and Byrd created the Observer Group partially in response to the failures of arms control treaties during the 1970s, such as the 1976 Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty, the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty, and the 1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II, which were all signed, but never ratified. Through the Observer Group, the Reagan administration was able to build support for the arms control treaty negotiating process, which eventually lead to treaty ratification. As members of the Observer Group, Senators gained knowledge that they may not otherwise have acquired about a broad range of issues related to arms control.
At this point, I think it is useful to respond to a couple comments I am receiving regarding the Hill piece. There are several people who have made the argument that ‘things are different than they were in the 1980s. Senators would not be interested in something like this today. You would not be able to get Senators interested in arms control in a bipartisan way.’
I concede that things are certainly different than they were in the 1980s. For example, I (sadly) doubt that the “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News would have be a top 10 hit today. However, bipartisan support for arms control is not one of those things, as long as the right circumstances exist.
I agree that partisanship, a decline in knowledge of nuclear policy, and the end of the Cold War makes creating something like the Observer Group more difficult. However, there were a number of factors that made it successful, only some of which were unique to the era.
For one, there was no immediate hurry for a vote on a treaty, as there was in the 2009-2010 timeframe with New START. This allows plenty of time to build support for the arms control process, eventually leading to a treaty. It also minimizes the likelihood that the group would become overly politicized. Also, Observer Group organizers were deliberate in making participants feel like they were part of the process. Senators were allowed to feel like negotiators were taking their concerns seriously. The Arms Control Observer Group was not as much a mechanism to organize support that already existed for arms control. It was more of a venue to slowly foster support as the administration moved forward.
Following the New START debate, there are a number of Senators who are still interested in the outcome of the treaty and the items articulated in the resolution of ratification. They would be a good place to start for Arms Control Observer Group membership.
Another comment I have received has to do with the National Security Working Group. Some have asked whether that was the same group Senator Kyl used to interfere with negotiations on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. While it is true that Senator Kyl used the National Security Working Group (NSWG) as a tool to achieve his own political goals, he was partially able to do so because Senators were not taking the NSWG seriously in the same way that they did the Observer Group. Although this is speculation, I doubt he would have been able to do this if the Observer Group was still in existence.
Supporters of New START were able to use Kyl’s interest in the treaty as a means of convincing other Republicans to support the treaty. As Supporters of the Treaty negotiated with Kyl, they were able to demonstrate how New START was in the United States’ best interest and also demonstrate their commitment to maintaining the nuclear stockpile. One of the ways Kyl was able to demonstrate his bona fides and interest in nuclear policy to other Republicans was through the NSWG.
Finally, Kyl’s example is a good cautionary tale as to why the Senate needs to choose the “right” people for the Observer Group. The Senate doesn’t need to be rubber stamps for arms control, but they need to be serious about the process. When Republican and Democratic leadership choose members for the newly formed ACOG, they should pick Senators who are serious about the process and about strengthening U.S. national security.