The unrelenting and rapid spread of the novel coronavirus underscores the cost of neglect and indecision by the Trump administration in the face of serious threats to U.S. and global security. This reckless abandonment of leadership also characterizes America’s response to other transnational challenges, including the potential for conflict on the European continent and the threat posed by nuclear weapons.
For example, The Guardian reported on April 5 that the Trump administration may withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty this fall. The treaty allows for short-notice, unarmed, observation flights over the territory of treaty parties to collect data on military forces and activities, and is staunchly supported by U.S allies. Nothing screams the U.S. absence in a world starving for leadership during a pandemic than moving forward with plans to withdraw from a treaty that continues to benefit U.S. and European security and that our allies want us to continue to support.
In addition, and even more consequentially, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which was signed a decade ago this week, expires in just 10 months. New START is the only remaining arms control agreement limiting the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. However, as the novel coronavirus emerged earlier this year, the administration continued to stiff-arm Russian overtures to prolong the life of the agreement by five years, as permitted by the accord. Instead, the administration has pursued the idea of striking an entirely new, trilateral arms control agreement that would include China in addition to Russia.
The chances of successfully negotiating such a new, complex deal were already slim before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, in the midst of what clearly will be an extended crisis, the odds are nigh nonexistent.
As the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright wrote recently, the virus “underscores the importance of cooperation with rivals on shared interests even as they compete ferociously in other spheres.” We can ill-afford to lose the only remaining limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, which would open the door to a quantitative arms race.
With the stroke of a pen, President Donald Trump could avert that danger. Extending the treaty can be secured by a simple exchange of diplomatic notes between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin and without the approval of the U.S. Senate.
Indisputable Security Benefits
Signed on April 8, 2010, New START caps U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed delivery systems. It also established a rigorous verification and monitoring regime, including regular notifications and data exchanges. A nuclear exchange involving just a portion of these massive arsenals could kill hundreds of millions of people.
Extending New START would retain these limits and sustain the flow of information about Russia’s strategic forces for another five years. An extension would also continue to aid U.S. military planning by reducing the need to make worst-case assessments that could prompt additional costly nuclear force investments. Every dollar spent on more nuclear weapons is a dollar that can’t be spent on addressing higher priority national and health security challenges.
Conversely, if New START expires next February, there would be no legally-binding, verifiable limits on the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972. The risk of unconstrained nuclear competition and an even more fraught U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship would be acute.
For these reasons and more, U.S. allies strongly support extension of New START. Extension also enjoys bipartisan support in Congress.
Since last December, Moscow has communicated its willingness to extend the accord immediately, without preconditions. The Trump administration, however, has yet to accept that offer.
Instead, the White House has continued to prioritize the pursuit of the new and more sweeping arms control agreement that covers additional types of Russian nuclear weapons and also includes China.
Bringing other nuclear actors and all types of nuclear weapons into the arms control process is an important and praiseworthy objective. But the administration’s vision for a trilateral arms control deal with China and Russia remains a mystery. Roughly a year after first proposing such an approach, Trump has yet to put forward even the semblance of a framework for such a deal.
Out of Time
Moreover, China, which has a much smaller nuclear arsenal than the United States and Russia, consistently states that it has no intention of participating in a trilateral process, and Moscow has declared that it will not try to convince Beijing to come to the table.
Even if China were interested in trilateral talks, negotiating such a deal would be unprecedented, complex, and time-consuming. The New START negotiations took more than 10 months, from the first round of talks in May 2009 to the treaty’s signing a decade ago (a relatively short amount of time, as far as arms control agreements go). And Russia, according to officials from Russia’s Foreign Ministry, might need months to process a “technical extension” of the treaty.
With the virus disrupting practically all diplomatic exchanges and meetings for at least the next several months – it has also halted the usual on-site inspections mandated by New START — there is simply not enough time for the dozens of face-to-face negotiating sessions that would be necessary to develop a first-of-its-kind arms control agreement.
All of which makes extending New START even more of a no-brainer. Prolonging the treaty would buy five additional years with which to pursue negotiations on more ambitious nuclear arms control measures.
Critics of New START extension argue that we have plenty of time to make a decision on an extension and that waiting provides leverage to bring Russia and China to the negotiating table on a broader agreement. But there is no evidence that holding out on extension will coerce Russia and China to come to the table and capitulate to U.S. demands.
Regardless, New START is too important to be gambled away in a high-stakes poker game with Russia and China.
Extending New START will maintain a cap on the Russian nuclear arsenal and is a necessary condition for follow-on talks with Russia and new negotiations with China. As the world girds for a long fight against the coronavirus pandemic, the preservation of New START represents the best immediate option that Trump has to reduce the risks of instability and insecurity posed by the still-bloated and dangerous U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.