National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke to the annual meeting of the Arms Control Association on June 2, and as organization chairman, it was my honor to introduce him. Sullivan said just what needed to be said about the continuing risk of nuclear conflict: that the Biden administration would continue the long U.S. tradition of leadership in finding ways to reduce that danger.
In particular, he said the United States is ready – “without preconditions” — to discuss with the Russian Federation how the two countries together could 1) manage nuclear risks, and 2) develop a new nuclear arms control framework before the last remaining agreement limiting their massive arsenals, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), expires in 2026. It was a forward-leaning message, one that was important to be heard by the American public, the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and by Moscow. Sullivan described the cracks in the post-Cold War nuclear foundation, and the urgency of meeting that challenge, even as he cautioned that “`without preconditions’ does not mean `without accountability.’”
His speech drew initial skepticism from the Russian Foreign Ministry, but days later, on June 5, the Kremlin welcomed the remarks in a statement, and indicated that Russia would study with care any proposal for discussions that would come from Washington. This response, though cautious, was also in keeping with a long-standing tradition: for 60 years – through wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq – Washington and Moscow have found a way to separate issues, to keep the imperative of avoiding the existential threat of nuclear war separate from all the other bilateral tensions.
And yet, this urgent dialogue has not begun. To the best of my knowledge the U.S. government has not conveyed to Moscow any specific proposal for the timing, level, or agenda of a new dialogue. Pushing even simple ideas through the U.S. bureaucracy is always a daunting task, and today there are more agencies and offices and actors with one finger in the Russia file than ever before. Still, the failure to take the next step is inconsistent with the urgency Sullivan’s speech correctly conveyed.
Arms control is not brain surgery, and it’s also not only about ratified treaties. Six decades of engagement with Moscow have built up a web of non-treaty nuclear arms control agreements, confidence-building steps, crisis communication channels and military practices that have reduced the risk of unintended escalation that could lead to nuclear war. It is a security ecosystem that requires renewed tending.
The proposed agenda can be drawn directly from Sullivan’s speech: managing today’s nuclear risks and preparing for the period after New START expires in 2026, when both countries will have a strong interest in avoiding another dangerous nuclear arms race. To give just one example of an agenda item, both countries could begin considering a unilateral, reciprocal commitment that neither will exceed the deployed strategic warhead limit set by New START (1,550 thermonuclear warheads each) until a more permanent arms control arrangement comes into effect.
At this point, proposing an overly detailed agenda – or an overly restrictive agenda – runs the risk of endless haggling, and is a formula for paralysis. Instead, the United States can count on its qualified team of both arms control experts and Russia specialists to work with the Russians on an appropriate agenda.
Giving Moscow a short paper — not a draft treaty, but a proposal for starting a discussion — should not be as difficult as it seems to have become. “Without preconditions” ought to be combined with the phrase “without complications.” Adding layers of other bilateral concerns to an already complex technical discussion is a formula for never getting started. Accordingly, a U.S. proposal for initiating a dialogue should avoid seeking to load the discussion with other issues, particularly all issues related to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Obviously, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war hangs a dark cloud over the political environment in both Washington and Moscow. But Sullivan’s speech shows the Biden administration knows what every successful arms negotiation has required: “…rather than waiting to resolve all our bilateral differences, the United States is ready to engage Russia now” on nuclear issues. The objection that some in the bureaucracy have apparently posed — that engaging with Russia on nuclear issues would signal to allies a weakening of U.S. resolve on Ukraine — is a mirror image of the Kremlin’s fantasy: that the U.S. cares so much about nuclear treaties that Washington will moderate its support for Ukraine.
Negotiating a new framework, of course, would be extraordinarily difficult now, with Russia violating one international commitment after another. However, to assume that Russia will not respond positively to any suggestion (and therefore we will make no suggestions) is not showing resolve; it’s just sidelining ourselves from the task the president set.
Every nuclear arms control agreement — through 10 administrations — has greatly benefitted American security and global security. Each of them required the United States to take the lead; never before has Washington simply sat back and waited for Moscow to set the agenda. As President John F. Kennedy said in his 1961 inaugural address, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” The inability to put down a simple concrete proposal — to get moving on an existential task — is inconsistent with President Joe Biden’s stated policy, and a sad comparison to decades of U.S. leadership.