President Trump’s newly named envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, gave a lengthy interview last week on the administration’s approach to nuclear arms negotiations. He stressed bringing in China, struck a pessimistic note about the sole treaty constraining Russian and U.S. nuclear forces, and offered no ideas for getting Moscow to discuss non-strategic nuclear arms.
Unfortunately, the interview reinforces the view that the Trump administration is unlikely to achieve a nuclear deal…or even develop a serious proposal.
Since late 2018, Mr. Trump has called for a trilateral nuclear negotiation involving Russia, China and the United States. Mr. Billingslea emphasized the need to get China in the game, terming the failure to include it a main flaw of the 2010 U.S.-Russia New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START.
Involving China in nuclear arms talks is a laudable ambition. The problem: Beijing has repeatedly stated that it will not take part. Chinese officials point out the large disparity in numbers compared to the nuclear superpowers. The United States maintains about 3800 nuclear warheads in its active stockpile, while Russia has some 4300; China has just over 300.
Despite that yawning gap, Mr. Billingslea seems to expect Beijing to negotiate because it “wants to be a great power.” He offered nothing that might entice the Chinese to reconsider their refusal (Chinese officials have long expressed concern about U.S. missile defense capabilities, but constraints on missile defense are off limits for the Trump administration).
The administration to date has offered no idea of what a trilateral agreement might look like. Are Washington and Moscow prepared to reduce their nuclear weapons to a total of 300? No. Are they prepared to accept an agreement that would legitimize a Chinese buildup to their levels? Again, no. Does anyone expect China to accept an agreement with unequal limits?
In Mr. Billingslea’s view, if Beijing will not play ball, Washington likely will not agree to extend New START, which expires in February 2021. He did not explain how New START’s end, which would leave Russian strategic nuclear forces unconstrained, would improve America’s position vis-à-vis China. In general, he did not sound like a fan of the treaty. For example, he criticized its verification measures for unspecified loopholes that Russia allegedly exploits. (For the record, the U.S. government has certified that Russia is in compliance with New START.)
Mr. Billingslea expressed concern about Russia’s large number of non-strategic nuclear arms. Getting to a negotiation that would cover all Russian nuclear weapons, strategic and non-strategic, is a desirable goal. However, Russian officials have said many times over the past decade that they would negotiate non-strategic weapons only when Washington addressed certain Russian concerns, such as missile defense and long-range conventional strike weapons. Mr. Billingslea offered nothing on either point.
He did, however, raise the five new nuclear systems that Russian President Putin announced in March 2018, calling on Moscow to simply “discard them.” Again, no suggestion of what the United States would be prepared to give in response.
Actually, Russian officials stated last year stated that two of the weapons systems—the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile and Avangaard hypersonic glide vehicle—are limited by New START. The other three systems are new kinds not constrained by the treaty, but it offers a mechanism for discussing them. That mechanism goes away if New START lapses.
Mr. Billingslea appears to believe the impact of COVID19 will give him a strong hand with his Russian counterparts. Perhaps; the effects of COVID19, including the fall in the price of oil, are painting a grim economic picture for Moscow. The virus, however, affects America as well: a multi-trillion-dollar deficit, nearly 15 percent unemployment and a deepening recession do not exactly put the U.S. budget in prime shape for an arms race.
Moreover, the Russian military has completed about 70 percent of its strategic nuclear modernization program; the U.S. military has just begun its modernization cycle.
Dealing with these complex arms control questions will take time, but Mr. Billingslea’s appointment comes late in the game—well into the fourth year of Mr. Trump’s presidency. Given the White House’s inept response to COVID19, a U.S. economy in crisis and polls showing Mr. Trump trailing former Vice President Biden, how much incentive will the other side’s negotiators have to deal with an administration that could be out the door come January?
So, any arms talks will be hard. Mr. Billingslea’s interview brings to mind one wag’s depiction of the ideal arms control treaty:
- Article I. The United States can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, without restriction of any kind.
- Article II. The Russians can’t.
A nice agreement, but hardly negotiable. Officials in Moscow and Beijing will read Mr. Billingslea’s interview and see nothing to give them reason to negotiate.