A US-Russia-China Arms Treaty? Extend New START First

National security adviser John Bolton listens as President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in August 2018, in Washington.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

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National security adviser John Bolton listens as President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in August 2018, in Washington.

Trump’s proposed pact is likely a pipe dream — or a smoke screen for scuttling yet another arms-control agreement.

New reports indicate that President Trump has ordered his administration to begin thinking about how to negotiate a new multilateral nuclear arms control agreement with Russia and China. There are good reasons to want to constrain the nuclear activities of these countries, but any new effort to do so should not stand in the way of doing the easy and obvious thing needed to protect American security: extend the 2010 New START Treaty between Russia and the United States. 

There is ample evidence that John Bolton — national security adviser and noted anti-arms controller — is eager to hold out the lure of a possible new negotiation to include China as a means of undermining the case for a straight and simple extension of New START, which expires in less than two years. And forgive me for doubting, but it is unlikely that the short-handed Trump administration has the personnel and skills required to negotiate a complex, multilateral arms control agreement within the next 18 months. We don’t need a nuclear version of repeal-and-replace.

The New START Treaty is the only remaining strategic nuclear arms control agreement in place between the United States and the Russian Federation. Negotiated by President Obama and approved by the Senate by the constitutionally required two-thirds majority, it limits both sides to no more than 1,550 strategic offensively deployed nuclear weapons on no more than 700 deployed launchers. Further, it provides the United States with irreplaceable access to and information about Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Both signatories are fully complying with the agreement, as verified by the U.S. intelligence community.

The agreement entered into force in 2011 and will expire on February 5, 2021. However the agreement can be extended by executive agreement for up to five years, a step that would not require further Congressional approval. (The extension provision was included in the Treaty approved by the Senate.) Both the Joint Chiefs and the U.S. intelligence community support such an extension. Russia, for its part, has repeatedly and unconditionally offered to extend the agreement.

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However, key administration figures see two flaws in New START. For Ambassador Bolton, it is an arms control agreement. As others have pointed out, there is a long line of dead treaties in the national security adviser’s wake, and he apparently wants to add New START to the list. The other flaw, this time in the eyes of Donald Trump, is that the treaty was negotiated under President Obama. As with other agreements that have the full support of the U.S. military and intelligence community, including the Iran nuclear deal, Donald Trump appears willing to undo anything achieved by his predecessor as some kind of ego-driven vendetta.

Regardless of the motives, the Trump administration has been in office more than two years and has yet to determine whether it is interested in extending the New START Treaty. That, as much as anything else, tells you whether or not this administration can prioritize important security issues and also whether it values international legally binding negotiated agreements. It is also worth recalling the Trump administration has seen fit to only one strategic stability consultation with Russia in those two-plus years, even though such talks were teed up by the Obama administration and though there is plenty of time and opportunity to continue them. To my mind, it is clear that for the reasons stated above that President Trump and Ambassador Bolton would be more than happy to get rid of the New START Treaty, one way or another.

It is in this context that one should view reports that President Trump is interested in trying to negotiate new broader multilateral strategic arms control agreements with both Russia and China. Of course, American military and security officials are rightly eager to expand strategic conversations with Russia to protect American interests, and also right to want new and expanded strategic conversations with China, whose actions and capabilities pose growing military and security challenges to American interests in East Asia. Those discussions are urgently needed to prevent conflicts and diffuse unnecessary tensions in volatile areas and develop new rules for our growing competition with these states.

Yet as useful as they might become, such efforts should not in any way be put in front of the urgently needed and beneficial effort to extend New START. Russia is developing new strategic nuclear systems, some of which would be covered under New START if it remains intact. Allowing the agreement to expire or trying to expand it in an unrealistic way and on an unrealistic timeframe means Russia will be free after 2021 to develop as many of these systems as chooses without any constraint or rights of American access. 

There is also nothing that prevents the Trump administration from extending the current agreement and at the same time beginning negotiations on new ones with Russia, China, or both. The fact that they haven’t put the New START horse before the multilateral arms-control cart tells you something about both the Administration’s intentions and capabilities.

Congress and the public should also be skeptical of claims by this administration that negotiating new agreements with Russia or China will be quick and easy. For example, when the Obama administration took office, we were able to negotiate New START in record time – about nine months. The Obama administration, however, had several things Trump does not. The Treaty was negotiated by globally recognized experts (such as Rose Gottemoeller, now Deputy Secretary General at NATO) with deep existing relationships with Russian officials and the American nuclear security community. We also had, by design, a full complement of Senate-confirmed officials at the Department of State, Defense, and other agencies as well as a working inter-agency process. We had a pair of national security advisors (Gen. Jim Jones and Tom Donilon) who ran a coherent national security process and had experience on arms control and military matters. And lastly, our negotiations benefitted from being led by a president who was engaged, informed, attentive, disciplined, and knew what it was he wanted to achieve both for the country’s security and for other global efforts. To be diplomatic, these are assets the Trump administration is not blessed with by choice or for other reasons.

By all means, those who worry about American security should welcome efforts by the Trump administration to finally engage Russia and China in serious and sustained strategic stability talks about our mutual interests and common dangers. Nuclear dangers abound and should not be held hostage to any other issues. But under no circumstances should we be tricked into thinking that these efforts should come before extending an existing agreement that is at risk and that very much serves American national security interests. The nuclear landscape, in the wake of President Trump’s withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty, the effort to kill the Iran nuclear deal, and Trump’s pen-pal nuclear diplomacy with North Korea is scary enough. Killing New START or trying to leverage is extension for other goals would open the last gate to a full-fledged nuclear arms race that neither the United States or Russia need or from which neither would benefit.


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