Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Biden’s First Move on Nuclear Weapons

When Putin calls to congratulate the new U.S. president, Biden should seize the opportunity.

At some point in the coming weeks President-elect Joe Biden will likely receive a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulating him on his election victory. Biden should seize the opportunity to provide an overdue reality check on nuclear weapons.

Tensions between the two nations that possess roughly 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads are reaching levels not seen since the darkest days of the Cold War, even as the edifice of arms control agreements that kept Cold War dangers in check teeters on the verge of collapse. Under the guise of weapons modernization both nations are also engaged in an incipient nuclear arms race. Little wonder that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has reset its Doomsday Clock to just one hundred seconds to midnight, the closest it’s ever been to Armageddon.

When he takes office on Jan. 20, Biden can help arrest that dangerous spiral by fulfilling his campaign pledge to extend the New START Treaty before it expires in early February, and to use it as a foundation to pursue new arms control agreements. Recent jockeying between U.S. and Russian negotiators on a one-year extension of New START highlight just how complex and difficult arms control negotiations have become. In an era of renewed major power competition, destabilizing new technologies, and rising international tensions and distrust, managing U.S.-Russian relations already are difficult. They only will become more so as Moscow comes to terms with a new Biden administration unwilling to overlook, as President Donald Trump has, Russia’s history of cyber and disinformation attacks on the American political system.

Before the election, talks between U.S. and Russian negotiators on extending New START bogged down over the Trump administration’s insistence that a one-year extension include a freeze on strategic nuclear weapons that are currently covered by the treaty, as well as tactical nuclear weapons that are not. As is often the case in arms control talks the devil was in the details of a verification regime to monitor such a “freeze.” But the goal of constraining shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons was laudable and should be pursued in follow-on talks.

Another sticking point in recent negotiations was the Trump administration’s initial insistence that China participate. With its much smaller nuclear arsenal relative to the United States and Russia, China has refused. However, if the U.S. and Russia were willing to negotiate a significant further reduction in their nuclear arsenals in follow-on talks — as required by the principles agreed on in the landmark Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — then Beijing would have an incentive to take part in talks going forward.

Biden and Putin should agree to a full five-year extension of New START, as allowed under the treaty, in order to give U.S., Russian, and Chinese negotiators critical breathing room to discuss a host of other thorny issues, to include: the implications of new technologies such as hypersonic delivery systems, and their inevitable linkages to missile defense systems; possible constraints on anti-satellite and other space weaponry; limits on long-range conventional weapons that can target and hold at risk nuclear arsenals and command nodes; and new norms for ensuring that offensive cyber capabilities are never used to target nuclear command-and-control or early warning systems, thus destabilizing the delicate balance of nuclear deterrence.

Congress has a critical role to play in these discussions that goes well beyond the Senate’s authority to ratify or reject treaties. The Senate and House Subcommittees on Strategic Forces provide oversight and must ensure that the new administration has a coherent and defensible strategy for managing nuclear forces. Through public hearings, Congress can also help educate the public and build a constituency for thoughtful nonproliferation policy.

Due to the hyper-partisanship that long ago infected Washington, D.C., the current generation of lawmakers has little memory of the deep and sustained bipartisanship that was necessary to build the foundation of strategic stability that kept the Cold War dormant and the nation safe for decades. That spirit of consensus was reflected in the bipartisan Congressional Arms Control Observer Group of the 1980s; the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program of the 1990s; and the National Security Working Group of the 1990s and 2000s. With his long experience with these issues as the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president, President-elect Biden remembers what bipartisanship on critical strategic issues looks like.  

The world is currently living through a period of great instability as it copes with the worst global pandemic since 1918, the worst economic shock since the Great Depression, and the worst tensions in major power relations since the early days of the Cold War. These crises come at a time when the treaties and multilateral institutions that are the foundation of the international order and strategic stability are visibly weakening, and in danger of collapse. In the past such periods of deep economic distress and geopolitical tensions have given rise to dark political forces, and are ripe for confrontation among nation-states. History will not judge kindly American political leaders who stood idle while a nuclear arms race was added to that already volatile mix.

Glenn Nye is president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, or CSPC, and a former member of Congress.

James Kitfield is a senior fellow at CSPC, and a three time recipient of the Gerald R. Ford Award for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense.

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