One the most important responsibilities of any American president is to reduce nuclear dangers and to avoid nuclear catastrophe. Republican and Democratic presidents have for decades actively engaged and secured key agreements with the world’s other major nuclear actor, Russia, to verifiably reduce excess nuclear arsenals and to try to maintain a stable mutual deterrence relationship.
Unfortunately, since his arrival in the White House, Donald Trump has expressed contradictory and erratic views about nuclear weapons and our nuclear relationship with Russia. Tomorrow’s visit to Washington D.C. by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and perhaps also with Trump will be an important opportunity to restore some semblance of stability and purpose to U.S. nuclear arms control policy.
In his first phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin in January 2017, Trump reportedly denounced the landmark 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). According to Reuters, which cited two current and one former U.S. official, when Putin raised the possibility of extending the treaty, Trump paused to ask his aides what the treaty was. Trump then told Putin the treaty was one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration, saying incorrectly that New START favors Russia.
A year later, on May 18, 2018, Trump told reporters he wanted to work with Putin “to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control.”
Since then, however, the president and his team have wasted valuable time and failed to develop a coherent arms control strategy. They have continued to criticize New START despite the fact that Russia is complying with the treaty, which verifiably limits the number of deployed strategic warheads at 1,550 and deployed strategic missiles and bombers at 700 each.
For nearly two years, Trump and his national security team have dithered on an interagency review that would consider whether to begin talks with Russia to extend the New START. Article XIV of the treaty allows the two presidents, by mutual agreement, to extend the treaty for a period of up to five years without further approval from the Senate or the Duma.
Worse still, Trump’s national security team all but shut down meaningful discussion with Russia on strategic weapons issues. In 2018, then-National Security Advisor John Bolton and then-Senior Director for Arms Control Tim Morrison at the National Security Council blocked a proposal supported by the Defense and State departments to engage in strategic stability talks with Moscow.
Then in 2019, when bipartisan legislation was introduced with the support of the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul (R-Texas) that called on the president to extend New START, the White House lobbied Republican members against endorsing the bill.
Now, rather than extending New START, which is set to expire in 14 months, Trump says he wants a new deal with Russia covering “tactical” nuclear weapons, as well as a deal that involves nuclear-armed China.
Last week in London, Trump erroneously claimed that Beijing is “extremely excited about getting involved” and would “certainly” be brought into such a deal. In reality, China has said repeatedly it is not currently interested in an arms control deal with Russia and the United States.
China is estimated to possess a total of 280 nuclear warheads, of which slightly more than 100 are deployed on intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. China has never been party to any agreement that limits the number or types of its nuclear weaponry. The United States and Russia possess far larger arsenals, estimated at 6,500 warheads (of all types) each, including about 1,400 strategic warheads each on a variety of long-range missile and bomber systems.
The view from Beijing is that if there are to be negotiations on a new nuclear arms control agreement, either “the U.S. agrees to reduce its arsenal to China’s level or agrees for China to raise its arsenal to the U.S. level,” according to a Nov. 8 statement from Fu Cong, director of the arms control department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Talks with other nuclear-armed states aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating all types of nuclear weapons are worthwhile and overdue. But such negotiations take time, proper planning, and a willingness to engage in give-and-take.
A more realistic approach on China would be for the United States and Russia to agree to extend New START, then begin talks on a follow-on treaty that sets limits well below those of New START if China agrees not to increase the size of its stockpile and adopts some transparency measures.
At present, however, Trump has not outlined how he wants to involve China, and there is not enough time to negotiate — and therefore no realistic possibility of concluding — a new trilateral arms control deal with Russia and China before New START expires on Feb. 5, 2021.
Making the Case (Inadvertently) for New START Extension
On May 6, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged that a new trilateral nuclear arms control deal may be too difficult to achieve: “It may be that is too ambitious. There are just a couple years left before New START expires. It may be that we have to do that on a bilateral basis.”
More recently, one of Trump’s former National Security Council advisors, Tim Morrison, acknowledged in a Dec. 5 op-ed published by CNN that time is running out and there still is not a plan in place for a more ambitious “trilateral” approach. Morrison, the former senior NSC director for arms control whose job it was to create such a plan, opines that “it’s not clear what has been done to implement that vision.”
Morrison also asks, “who is the lead for the President in implementing his policy? There is no assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance (the last Senate-confirmed official resigned her post in May of this year), nor is there an under-secretary of state for arms control and international security (the incumbent also left her post earlier this year).”
Morrison also notes that there is no special envoy on nuclear arms control and suggests there should be one. He is right.
All of these points only underscore that reality that the negotiation of an ambitious new nuclear arms control deal with Russia and a first-time arms control deal with China are not within this president’s grasp, at least not anytime soon.
Nevertheless, Morrison complains that New START only limits what it was designed to do — limit strategic deployed nuclear warheads and delivery systems — and does not limit Russia’s arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, which are kept in centralized storage sites.
“Extending New START,” Morrison laments, would maintain the distinction between “strategic” and “tactical” nuclear weapons and, as a result, some worrisome types of weapons — nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile, for example — “would continue to not be covered” by any arms control agreement.
On this point, Morrison’s logic is deeply flawed. Extension of New START would not “prevent” negotiations to reduce or eliminate other classes of nuclear weapons. Recall that in the 1980s, Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev engaged in negotiations that led to separate agreements on strategic and intermediate-range nuclear weapons. In fact, discarding New START would only make it harder to reduce the dangers posed by long-range, intermediate-range, and shorter-range (i.e. tactical) nuclear weapons.
Talks on mutual verifiable reductions of tactical nuclear warheads are certainly overdue and desirable. Arms control specialists, including myself, have long advocated for serious efforts to eliminate shorter-range, tactical nuclear weapons and proposed that in a future round of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control talks for the post-New START era, the two sides should seek far lower, total limits on all types of nuclear weapons.
Morrison and others still in Trump administration may be unhappy that New START does not solve every global nuclear arms control problem. (What agreement does?) But it should be obvious to them that until and unless there is a new arms control agreement, it is in our national interest to maintain New START’s verifiable limits on strategic nuclear weapons that can reach targets in the United States in under 30 minutes.
Support for New START Is Wide and Deep
According to Morrison, there is but a “small, but loud, choir of disarmament advocates in Washington, D.C. as well as an “unelected bureaucracy” that is focused on the New START Treaty.
Yes, arms control advocates support New START extension and follow-on talks, as do pragmatic government professionals, but we are hardly alone. So do major U.S. allies, the U.S. military, a growing number of Republican lawmakers, Democratic lawmakers, and the American public.
Military and intelligence officials greatly value the inspections that New START requires and its prohibition on interference with national technical means of verification, which provide predictability and promote a predictable nuclear deterrence posture vis-à-vis Russia.
On Dec. 4, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Mullen testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and argued that New START “contributes substantially to U.S. national security by providing limits, robust verification, and predictability about Russian strategic forces.” We have “high confidence” Russia is complying with the treaty, he testified. “Without the treaty and its verification provisions, we’d be flying blind.”
“It is strongly in the U.S. national interests,” Mullen concluded, “to extend New START for five years so that the United States and Russia can continue to realize the mutual benefits and stability it provides.”
In July, Navy Vice Admiral David Kriete, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said that this verification regime provides “great insight” into Russia’s arsenal. “If we were to lose that for any reason in the future, we would have to go look for other ways to fill in the gaps for the things we get from those verifications,” he warned.
All major U.S. allies have communicated their support for extending New START to the Trump administration. As Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö said during a joint news conference Oct. 2 with President Trump: “Some of us remember the worst years of [the] Cold War in [the] 1960s. There was no agreement at all. Just Cold War. We can’t let the situation return no agreement at all about arms control. And that is why it is important to try to negotiate new agreements and to continue the New START Agreement.”
There is also growing bipartisan support in Congress for the treaty’s extension. In the House, Representatives Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) introduced the “Richard G. Lugar and Ellen O. Tauscher Act to Maintain Limits on Russian Nuclear Forces” (H.R. 2529), which expresses the Sense of Congress that the United States should seek to extend the New START Treaty so long as Russia remains in compliance. In the Senate, Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) introduced a companion bill, which may soon be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The American public supports the treaty’s extension of the treaty by wide margins. A poll published in May by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland showed that an overwhelming 82 percent of Americans support extending New START. According to the poll, 89 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans support extension. In addition, 83 percent of respondents said they approve of continuing to have arms control treaties with Russia.
Ultimately, a decision to extend New START would represent a significant foreign policy win for Trump and the United States.
What Is to Be Done? And Why?
Despite his own doubts about the administration’s readiness to pursue talks on a new arms control deal, Morrison advises the President to follow his “instincts” and to hold out for a “better” deal with Russia that also involves China.
On an issue this important, however, we can’t afford to rely on Trump’s instincts and the flawed logic of his former advisors. If the president decides to hold out for a more ambitious trilateral deal and he misses the chance to extend New START, there would be no legally binding, verifiable limits on the U.S. or Russian nuclear arsenals for the first time in nearly half a century. If those ceilings expire, Russia and the United States could, relatively quickly, upload hundreds of additional nuclear warheads to their long-range delivery systems. The intrusive monitoring and verification the treaty provides would be lost.
Trump will have a chance to clarify his views on nuclear arms control very soon, possibly during Lavrov’s visit to Washington this week.
Last week, Putin stated his position quite clearly, saying, “Russia is ready to extend the New START treaty immediately, before the year’s end and without any preconditions.”
If President Trump actually seeks to avoid an arms race, maintain a cap on the Russian nuclear arsenal, and create the conditions for follow-on talks with Russia and new negotiations with China on nuclear arms control, he should take up Putin’s proposal and promptly agree with Russia to extend New START by five years.