By Thomas Countryman
Until President Donald Trump took office in 2017, every U.S. president for the previous 50 years proposed and pursued negotiations with Moscow as a means to regulate destabilizing nuclear arms competition and reduce the risk of the United States and its allies being destroyed in a nuclear war. They sought and concluded a series of treaties, with strong bipartisan support, that have made the United States and the world much safer.
Nearly exactly 50 years ago, for example, the United States and Russia opened the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks on Nov. 17, 1969. Lead U.S. negotiator Gerard Smith wrote that his opening message that day was that “[t]he limitation of strategic arms is in the mutual interests of our country and the Soviet Union.”1
What was true then is true now. Sadly, Trump has not continued the efforts of his predecessors. The United States abandoned the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty this year and appears ready to allow the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) to lapse in 2021. If New START expires, there will be no legally binding, verifiable limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in nearly half a century.
Instead, Trump says he wants to bring China into trilateral negotiations with Russia on a new agreement to limit nuclear weapons not covered by New START. Efforts to limit all types of nuclear weapons with other nuclear-armed states are admirable, but such negotiations would be complex and time consuming. There is no realistic chance that a new agreement along these lines could be finalized before New START expires.
This approach has drawn a bipartisan rebuke, and has prompted House and Senate lawmakers to introduce bills to support New START extension. In the House, Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) introduced the “Richard G. Lugar and Ellen O. Tauscher Act to Maintain Limits on Russian Nuclear Forces” bill, which expresses the sense of Congress that the United States should seek to extend New START so long as Russia remains in compliance. Similarly, in the Senate, Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) introduced a companion bill of the same title and purpose.
Extending New START would preserve verifiable caps on the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia. The treaty limits each side to 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems. Without these limits and verification measures, Russia is well positioned to rapidly upload more additional warheads than the United States could, and each side would have far less insight into the other’s nuclear deployment and modernization plans. As a result, the already difficult and uneasy U.S. nuclear relationship with Russia would become even more complicated, the risks of renewed nuclear competition would grow, and efforts to mitigate nuclear risks in other corners of the globe would become more difficult.
The Value of Nuclear Arms Control
Previous presidents, since Dwight Eisenhower have recognized the value of effective nuclear arms control. They understood that:
- Talking to an adversary, whether a superpower such as the Soviet Union or a lesser challenger such as Iran, is not a sign of weakness but a hardheaded and realistic means to reduce threats posed to the United States.
- Treaties provide rules of the road that enable the United States to pursue more effectively its economic and security interests while constraining other nations’ ability to act against U.S. interests more than they constrain U.S. freedom of action.
- Arms control agreements are not a concession made by the United States or a favor done to another nation, but an essential component of and contribution to U.S. national security.
- In a world in which the United States claims global leadership, Washington must take the lead bilaterally and multilaterally, proposing initiatives that greatly reduce the risk that weapons of mass destruction spread or are used.
- The pursuit of reductions of nuclear stockpiles and the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons as a moral and, since approval by the U.S. Senate of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1969, legal obligation, one that can and must be pursued regardless of the ups and downs of great-power relations.
- There can be no winners in a nuclear war. Mutual assured destruction is not a theory or a philosophy; it is a reality. Since the time the Soviet Union achieved reliable intercontinental ballistic missiles in the 1960s, neither the United States nor Russia can launch a nuclear attack on the other’s homeland without the near-certain destruction of its own homeland. Arms control agreements and associated stability mechanisms serve to reduce the risk that a cycle of assured destruction will begin.
As a consequence of U.S. diplomatic leadership and the support of Congress, a series of bilateral agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union, and later Russia, verifiably reduced the two superpowers’ strategic nuclear arsenals by more than 85 percent below their Cold War peaks. The total destructive power of those weapons has been reduced from the equivalent of more than a million Hiroshima-size bombs to the somewhat less insane equivalent of 80,000 such weapons. One of those agreements, the INF Treaty, verifiably eliminated an entire class of destabilizing missiles that threatened European security and increased the risk of superpower miscalculation.
The United States helped lead the way to the negotiation and conclusion of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits any nuclear test explosion, no matter what the yield. Although the CTBT has not formally entered into force due to the failure of eight key states to ratify, the treaty has been signed by 184 nations, including all five nuclear-weapon states recognized by the NPT; has established a global monitoring network that is operating around the clock to help detect and deter clandestine testing; and created a global norm against nuclear testing. Today, no state is actively engaged in nuclear testing.
U.S.-led efforts to reduce the role and the number of nuclear weapons and to end nuclear testing, combined with political pledges from the United States and the other nuclear-armed states to take further disarmament steps, have helped to solidify international support for the NPT and paved the way for its indefinite extension in 1995.
Many of these positive trends have been reversed, and others are at risk. This is due in part to a deficit of U.S. leadership and the growing body of thought of many in the administration and Congress today who believe that the United States should not discuss vital national security issues or consider compromise with adversaries such as Russia and Iran until they have fully met U.S. demands in all fields. They think international treaties are inherently disadvantageous to the United States, as they constrain the freedom of action of the world’s leading military and economic power. They imagine that because arms control agreements involve a degree of compromise, they grant unwarranted concessions to opponents. They deem such agreements to have no value if they do not solve every problem between the parties, an all-or-nothing approach exemplified by the U.S. decision to withdraw from the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran. They credit the Cold War fallacy that there is a way to win a nuclear war, that a numerical or technical advantage can give the United States a dominance of power that would spare the country from destruction in a nuclear exchange. Sadly, no U.S. official today is able to repeat the obvious fact that motivated President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to declare that “[a] nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”
Over the last two years, this line of thinking is evident in the Trump administration’s retreat from global leadership, its embrace of authoritarian leaders, its weakening partnership with democratic allies, its withdrawal from international agreements, and its inability to make any new and meaningful agreements. The administration has weakened restraints on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium. It has refused to reconsider CTBT ratification or otherwise reinforce the de facto nuclear testing moratorium, which has preserved the important U.S. technical advantage in the nuclear field.
Now, with the demise of the INF Treaty and the looming expiration date of New START, the administration has failed to put forward a serious plan for constraining Russia’s nuclear arsenal. There is a serious risk that, without extension of New START and mutual restraints on INF Treaty-range missile systems after the end of that treaty, the conditions for an expensive, risky, and destabilizing nuclear weapons race will emerge, similar to but riskier and more expensive than the arms race in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the absence of responsible steps to prevent a dangerous new U.S.-Russian nuclear arms race, Congress can and should be ready to point the way forward.
No INF Treaty, What Now?
The INF Treaty was a signature foreign policy achievement for Reagan. It was unprecedented in its requirement of the destruction of nuclear warheads and delivery systems, resulting in the elimination of 2,692 Soviet and U.S. missiles. It established the principle of on-site inspection, a concept still central today to effective agreements and to U.S. understanding of Russian systems. It resolved a dangerous split within NATO and reduced a genuine threat to U.S. allies and to peace in Europe. It was central to establishing the opportunity for genuine cooperation between Washington and Moscow.
The U.S. withdrawal from the treaty will now free the Russian military to plan new generations of missiles aimed at Russia’s NATO and non-NATO neighbors while plausibly blaming the United States for the treaty’s demise.
The U.S. decision to terminate the treaty, now combined with the possibility of new U.S. ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe, was risky and unwise. It opened the door to a new phase of destabilizing INF Treaty-range missile competition with Russia.
These missiles, whether nuclear armed or conventional, U.S. or Russian, would be able to strike targets deep inside Russia and in western Europe. Their short time-to-target capability increases the risk of miscalculation in a crisis. Any nuclear attack on Russia involving U.S. intermediate-range, nuclear-armed missiles based in Europe could provoke a massive Russian nuclear counterstrike on Europe and on the U.S. homeland.
This leaves open the questions: what happens next, and what can be done to mitigate the risks?
To encourage Russia to avoid expanding missile deployments, including the 9M729 intermediate-range cruise missile that the Obama and Trump administrations confirmed was tested and deployed in violation of the INF Treaty, a new and more serious NATO commitment to arms control is needed to protect Europe and the United States.
One option would be for NATO to declare as a bloc that no alliance members will field any INF Treaty-prohibited missiles or any equivalent new nuclear capabilities in Europe so long as Russia does not deploy treaty-prohibited systems where they could hit NATO territory.
This would require Russia to dismantle or move at least some of the currently deployed 9M729 missiles. As the United States and Russia dispute the range of that missile, they could simply agree to bar deployments west of the Ural Mountains or beyond. The U.S. and Russian presidents could agree to this “no-first INF Treaty-range missile deployment plan” through an executive agreement that would be verified through national technical means of intelligence, monitoring mechanisms available through the Open Skies Treaty and the Vienna Document, and, as necessary, new on-site inspection arrangements.
Another possible approach would be to negotiate a new agreement, perhaps as part of a New START follow-on, that verifiably prohibits ground-launched, intermediate-range ballistic or cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads. As a recent UN Institute for Disarmament Research study explains, the sophisticated verification procedures and technologies already in place under New START can be applied with almost no modification to verify the absence of nuclear warheads deployed on shorter-range missiles.2
Such an approach would require additional declarations and inspections of any ground-launched INF Treaty-range systems. To be of lasting value, such a framework would require that Moscow and Washington agree to extend New START.
The Future of New START
New START reduced deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals to their lowest level since the 1960s. It built on previously agreed systems of notification, verification, and inspection. To date, the two sides have exchanged more than 10,000 notifications of movement of delivery systems and have conducted dozens of on-site verification inspections on each other’s territory.
As a result, the United States has a significantly clearer picture of Russian strategic capabilities than it could attain by national intelligence means alone. There have been no credible allegations of Russian violations of the agreement and, despite some questionable Russian concerns about verifying the conversion of U.S. strategic nuclear systems to conventional roles, the United States also continues to fully implement the treaty.
The Trump administration, however, appears to believe in the myth that Russia needs New START more than the United States does and that the treaty can be leveraged to gain something more from Moscow.
Taking these factors into account, the most important step that the two sides could take would be to take advantage of the option, as described in Article XIV, to extend the treaty by five years to 2026.
To do so, it is important that the two sides promptly begin consultations on key issues raised by each side. Russia has raised concerns about the verification of the permitted procedures to convert some U.S. nuclear weapons delivery systems to conventional roles. The United States understandably has suggested that New START should account for new Russian strategic nuclear weapons systems, including the Status-6 nuclear-armed, long-range torpedo and the proposed nuclear-propelled, long-range cruise missile. If both sides are willing to engage in a professional dialogue relatively soon, using the mechanism contained in the treaty, the Bilateral Consultative Commission, these issues can be addressed in a mutually agreed manner before or soon after a decision to extend New START is taken.
New START extension is the most significant step Trump could take with Russia that would improve national security, lay the basis for progress in other areas of Russian misbehavior, and draw bipartisan support.
The United States does not need and cannot afford a new Cold War-style nuclear arms race, nor does it need to give China a cynical excuse to expand its arsenal, as is likely if the United States and Russia discard New START without a replacement agreement and pursue expanded deployment of intermediate-range missiles in the wake of the INF Treaty collapse.
As an insurance policy against increased Russian and U.S. strategic warhead deployments in the absence of New START, Congress could prohibit the use of funds for the purpose of increasing U.S. strategic warhead and delivery vehicles above New START limits so long as the U.S. intelligence community assesses that Russia remains under the New START limits.
During Senate consideration of the treaty in 2010, the White House made a strong commitment to sustain the funding necessary to replace and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons delivery systems and for warhead life extension programs. Since then, the cost estimates for those programs have grown significantly, and the Trump administration has added a number of new requests that would add new nuclear capabilities to the arsenal.
If this administration, whether through inaction or proactively, forces the end of New START, Congress should not go along supinely with the administration’s plan for spending on new nuclear weapons, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates to be $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years. Instead, Congress should seek more cost-effective program alternatives that can save hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars while still allowing for the deployment of a nuclear force more than sufficient to deter any and all nuclear adversaries.
A Broader Arms Control Agreement?
The Trump administration has delayed any action on extension of New START and has proposed instead expanding New START to include China as a treaty party and to set new limits on tactical nuclear weapons, which are not covered by New START. When described this way, such an approach may seem to make sense. Involving other nuclear-armed states and all types of nuclear weapons in the disarmament process should be a medium-term goal of any administration.
Yet, given the antipathy expressed toward New START and all other treaties by President Trump’s former national security advisor, John Bolton, and the difficulties of engaging China on nuclear arms control matters, that approach appears to be a poison pill, a pretext for withdrawing from New START or allowing it to expire rather than to sustain meaningful limits on Russia’s strategic arsenal.
There are several obstacles in the way of a more ambitious trilateral nuclear arms control deal with China and Russia. First, China has very little incentive to participate. With a nuclear arsenal less than one-tenth the size of U.S. and Russian stockpiles, it argues that these two sides need to reduce before including China in their discussions. The United States has not defined what agreement it would want China to embrace—to commit to the limitations New START imposed on Moscow and Washington? This would mean blessing a fivefold increase in China’s weapons stockpile, which is hardly in the U.S. interest. Alternatively, would the United States agree to reduce U.S. and Russian deployments to China’s level, estimated at more than 300 warheads? That would be a real contribution to reducing the risk of nuclear war, but it is not currently achievable for political and security reasons.
Second, Russia counts the French and UK nuclear deterrents like the U.S. arsenal, as belonging to a potential adversary. It has suggested that multilateral discussions should include not only Beijing, but also Paris and London. Further, Moscow is not ready at this time to discuss its nonstrategic arsenal, particularly if the United States is not prepared to discuss issues of greatest concern to Moscow, such as U.S. plans for ballistic missile defense.
Third, the United States would not be ready to discuss reducing its own nonstrategic nuclear stockpile before completing consultations with NATO partners, which would inevitably be complex and time consuming.
Finally, even under ideal conditions, a bilateral negotiation on a single topic takes years. Even if Russia and China were willing to discuss the proposed Trump agenda, a trilateral discussion of multiple topics would inevitably take considerably longer, even if it were pursued by an administration committed to the topic and with successful experience in negotiations. This is not such an administration, which features officials long opposed to New START, combined with a nearly complete absence of experienced officials in the U.S. Department of State. It is utterly unrealistic to expect such an agreement could be achieved before the scheduled expiration of New START in a little more than a year.
Strategic Stability Beyond New START
If New START is not extended, the two superpowers will find themselves in 2021 with no legal restraints on their nuclear arsenals. This absence would be a foreboding political signal: if the two main nuclear powers cannot agree on the urgency of reducing the nuclear threat hanging over them, what chances will there be for reducing other areas of tension?
As U.S. intelligence leaders have testified, our national technical means alone, even if upgraded at great expense, could not fully substitute for the insight into the Russian arsenal gained from New START’s notification requirements. In the absence of confidence about the other side’s capabilities, U.S. and Russian planners will have greater incentive to engage in worst-case scenario planning, driving a spiral of increased spending on destabilizing systems.
A deep strategic stability dialogue between Washington and Moscow is necessary today to reduce the risk of unintended escalation and will be even more essential tomorrow if New START is allowed to expire. Central to this effort is the intensification of U.S.-Russian military-to-military contacts. The no-contact policy dating back to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was meant to show Moscow there can be no business as usual, but it now works against U.S. security interests because it prevents the kind of information exchange and relationships that could help prevent an incident from becoming a conflict.
For decades, U.S. presidents have pursued arms control agreements and dialogue with the Soviet Union, and later Russia, under difficult circumstances, because it is the U.S. national security interest to reduce the risks posed by the world’s most dangerous weapons, and especially between the two nations with the largest and deadliest nuclear arsenals.
Especially at this time of increasing tensions between leaders in Moscow and Washington, more serious and sustained U.S. leadership is needed to reduce nuclear risks, cut excess nuclear arsenals, and to engage other nuclear-armed states in the nuclear disarmament enterprise. By agreeing to extend New START, President Trump has an opportunity to get the United States and Russia back on track and to set the stage for more ambitious multilateral nuclear disarmament diplomacy.
2. Pavel Podvig and Ryan Snyder, “Watch Them Go: Simplifying the Elimination of Fissile Materials and Nuclear Weapons,” United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, August 2019, https://unidir.org/publication/watch-them-go-simplifying-elimination-fissile-materials-and-nuclear-weapons.
Thomas Countryman served for 35 years in the U.S. Foreign Service and rose to become acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security before retiring in 2017. He now chairs the Arms Control Association’s board of directors. This article is adapted from testimony he delivered July 25 to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment.