Last week, the new U.S. envoy on arms control reiterated the Trump administration’s stance on New START: China should join the strategic arms treaty between the U.S. and Russia, or Washington may allow it to lapse next year. The former outcome, in theory, would increase the stability of relations between major nuclear powers. But some experts say the administration is gambling with a key arms-control agreement to pursue a goal it has no chance of obtaining, thus pushing the globe to a new nuclear arms race.
The New START treaty limits U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons and launch platforms and requires each side to allow inspections of its stockpile. It doesn’t restrict the development of new missiles, and it doesn’t cover China. Early in the Trump administration, officials began to suggest that they might not renew the treaty, signed by President Barack Obama in 2009. In a recent interview with the Washington Times, Marshall Billingslea, who last week was nominated to be undersecretary of state for arms control and currently serves as a special presidential envoy for arms control, said the deal “does nothing for the United States with respect to our concerns regarding China, and it does nothing for the United States with respect to our concerns regarding what Russia has been doing, which are a series of destabilizing activities outside of — and not constrained by — the treaty.”
Tim Morrison, senior fellow at Hudson Institute and former Trump White House official in charge of U.S. arms control policy, welcomed the stance. “This is what a negotiation is all about: getting the other party or parties to give up something they don’t want to give up in order to get a deal that benefits both parties. The starting position shouldn’t be ‘What does China want?’ or ‘what does Putin want?’ The starting position must always be ‘What is in America’s national security interest?’ If you don’t agree, give me a call; I have an Edsel I can sell you for a great price,” he told Defense One.
Morrison, who has pushed for an expanded deal, had worried that the State Department had been less than fully focused on the matter. He said the selection of Billingslea, who still requires Senate confirmation, has eased those concerns.
A former senior State Department official who spoke to Defense One in January said that it takes more than a special envoy or undersecretary to make something like a comprehensive trilateral arms control agreement work, especially between three competitive nuclear powers. “I think it will mean the president saying, ‘I want to do this.’ And it will mean him saying to his cabinet — Pompeo, Esper, the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], etc. — ‘We need to get this done.’ So there has to be the high-level guidance.”
The former State official cited the April 2009 meeting between Obama met with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, which produced a “clear joint statement with guidance to both interagencies in Washington and Moscow to move out and get the negotiations done. That was really the tool by which we were able to bring together a very powerful team to negotiate the New START treaty.” Obama took a very hands-on approach to crafting and negotiating a deal, and pushed lower cabinet members to contribute. That sort of attention from the Oval Office is necessary to get something like a major arms control deal negotiated, the former official said. Also, in 2009, there was some appetite for an agreement on both sides.
In 2020, by contrast, Russia has said that it isn’t interested in broadening New START to include things like hypersonic weapons and China isn’t interested at all in meeting the Trump administration on its terms. Trump is currently burdened by the coronavirus fight, fixated on reelection, and seems to devote more energy to a host of perceived grievances and vendettas than to arms control. All of that means that getting a three-way agreement now is going to be very difficult.
“It’s the leadership vacuum that worries me, [leadership] of the interagency. It’s not going to be this negotiator riding in on a white horse that’s going to save the day. It’s got to be top-level leadership, starting with the president and his cabinet secretaries working with the Russians to give high-level guidance,” said the former official.
The former official said that allies are open to a three-way arms control deal, in theory. But they also suspect that the Trump administration may be intentionally setting conditions to keep negotiations from even starting, “like the notion that you would force China early to the negotiating table before it’s really ready and then when China doesn’t want to start talking, say, well, we can’t possibly extend New START. That’s been a worry among the allies, that there are some potential poison pills that the administration has put in place that could really spell the end of nuclear arms control as we’ve known it.”
One arms-control proponent agreed.
“Billingslea made clear in the interview [with The Washington Times] his disdain for New START, misguided belief that Russia and China can be pressured to the negotiating table, including apparently via an arms race, and wildly unrealistic expectations for a new trilateral agreement,” said Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association. “Even if the administration had a realistic plan for negotiating a first-of-its-kind trilateral arms control deal, there isn’t enough time to negotiate such an accord before New START expires next February.”
The obvious choice, Reif said, is to extend New START.
“Doing so would preserve the many security benefits the treaty provides and buy additional time to attempt to negotiate a more far-reaching deal that includes additional types of nuclear weapons and nuclear-armed states not covered by New START,” he said.
Unless the goal is to “run out the clock” on New START — in which case the administration is doing just fine.