Negotiating the New START Treaty

September 2021

How to Succeed at Arms Control Despite Tough Odds

Negotiating the New START Treaty
By Rose Gottemoeller
(Cambria Press, Amherst, New York, 2021)
244 pages

Reviewed by Linton F. Brooks

In January 2009, Rose Gottemoeller, recently returned from three years heading the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was given an impossible assignment by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was asked to negotiate the first comprehensive bilateral nuclear arms control treaty in more than a quarter of a century and to do so in less than a year, even though the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) took almost a decade. Compounding the hurdles, Gottemoeller was reliant on a U.S. government whose negotiating expertise had atrophied. She had to work with a Russian government in the early grip of Putinism and well known as a difficult negotiating partner. This fascinating book is her personal account of how she met those challenges.

The seniority and prestige of the six officials who provide blurbs on the back of the book demonstrate the high regard in which the author is held. Their view that the book provides unique insights is amply borne out. In addition to its policy importance, the book is a model of clear, understandable writing on a complex subject.

I have known the author as a professional colleague and personal friend for almost four decades. I am mentioned incidentally three times in her book. In her earlier two tours in government, I was one of a number of people with whom she would occasionally brainstorm. I have tried to write an objective review, but I am in no sense an impartial observer.

My observations focus on a handful of the most important topics and are seen through the prism of Cold War arms control negotiations, particularly those leading to the 1991 START for which I was the last chief negotiator. I hope to make it clear where things have changed and where they have not and thus help readers understand the challenges of the future.

The Main Players: Russia and the White House

As Gottemoeller makes clear, the least surprising thing she faced was the nature of her Russian counterparts. They were willing to play games, sometimes withdrew positions that the United States thought were settled, and were often hierarchal and misogynist. Such characteristics were well known to the author, who has decades of experience with the Russians and speaks the language fluently. They would have been equally easy to identify by any member of a Cold War arms control delegation.

The author correctly points out the advantage of having delegation members who speak Russian. She had far more Russian speakers than I had 30 years ago, Today, the number of U.S. career officials with first-hand Russian experience and often Russian language skills gained through arms control inspection teams and the expanding channels of communication between the United States and Russia is again on the rise. Those skills are a significant advantage that must not be squandered in future negotiations.

As a former negotiator, much of the book felt familiar. I remember the Russians repudiating positions they had previously accepted. I remember arguments over who got to go to high-level meetings and the difficulties resulting when one negotiator attended and the other did not. I remember operating on three hours sleep while trying to remain civil. I remember private discussions with my counterpart, often over lunch, to seek to settle issues.

When it came to relations with the White House, however, I could not relate at all to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Gottemoeller worked for the White House; I did not. That was in part because of President Barack Obama's deep personal involvement with the near-impossible goal he had set. It was also because the government’s capability to negotiate an arms control treaty had completely atrophied. Negotiating the first START took nine years and involved six chief negotiators. By the time I arrived, it was clear that arms control negotiations, like any other negotiations, were a responsibility of the Department of State, and there was a well-established system for providing guidance. My only White House involvement was trying to maximize how many of my delegation could attend the signing ceremony.

Despite the excellent people involved, the Obama White House never seemed to fully comprehend how international negotiations worked. It failed to understand the delegation’s need for time to brainstorm on the best approach. It acted as though the only requirement was to put out a draft proposal and get some comments. Treaties are written in Russian and English with each copy considered equally authentic. It takes immense work to ensure phrasing in both languages have the same meaning. Although the book does not say so explicitly, these weaknesses may have been exacerbated by a White House tendency to micromanage.

One example of the lack of understanding, which Gottemoeller was too gracious to mention, was the White House’s failure during a negotiation that went on for 15 months to give her the rank of ambassador. White House staff seemed oblivious to the fact that, in diplomatic negotiations, rank is viewed as a symbol of whether the negotiator is fully empowered with the status and influence to speak authoritatively for their government. That failure made Gottemoeller’s job even more challenging.

The Working-Level Essential: Backstopping

It is gratifying that Negotiating the New START Treaty gives attention to backstopping, the vital interagency process that produces formal instructions to an arms control delegation. It is designed to ensure that the interests of all major governmental agencies are adequately considered. Ideally, backstopping will result in instructions on which all agencies agree. When that is not the case, as was almost always true with the 1991 START, the process allows for the National Security Council staff to adjudicate disputes.

Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, who negotiated the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, speaks at a conference in the United Kingdom in 2012. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)Backstopping requires a unique leadership style. The leader must be able to bring about consensus, if possible; recognize when consensus is unlikely; and work to gain an appropriate decision to allow instructions to proceed. Gottemoeller recounts how well the process that supported her worked, largely because of the experience and skill of the chair of the backstopping committee, Lynn Rusten.

At least as portrayed in the book, there were relatively few significant disagreements among departments, a rarity in U.S. arms control history. In addition to ensuring that no relevant considerations are overlooked, good backstopping reduces the chance that those believing their interests were inadequately considered will stir political tensions by feeding their concerns to specific senators, gets instructions to the delegation in a timely fashion, and alerts the White House and State Department to issues that may arise in ratification. Officials with backstopping responsibilities in the future will benefit from this section of the book if they use it as a blueprint for their aspirations.

The Political Necessity: High-Level Reinforcement

Cold War negotiators were implementers, not originators. For example, the central limits of the 1991 START were all agreed during presidential summits or meetings between the U.S. secretary of state and the Soviet foreign minister. That does not mean the negotiators had nothing to do. The central limits of START can be listed on a single page; the implementing details, mostly verification, consume several hundred pages.

The negotiating team for New START faced a different problem. The central limits—1,550 deployed warheads, 700 launchers that contained missiles and an aggregate total of 800 launchers (bombers counted as one unit against each of these totals)—were negotiated by the delegation itself, then ultimately agreed by the two presidents .. Because these limits were primarily a military issue, when the Russians appeared to be stonewalling, Gottemoeller made the excellent decision that she needed negotiating support from a senior military officer rather than a more senior diplomat. She enlisted Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen to come to Geneva and meet his Russian counterpart. Although no decisions were reached, this meeting proved successful in gaining Russian agreement to work the issue seriously, ultimately leading to agreement. Mullen’s presence made it clear that there was U.S. military support for the treaty. That was significant because there appears to have been no senior uniformed officer on the U.S. delegation. Later in Moscow, Mullen was similarly influential in gaining Russian approval for the important concept of unique identifiers.

Although Clinton did not engage in direct negotiations with her Russian counterpart, as was generally true during the Cold War, she consistently supported Gottemoeller against White House criticism. Having a strong champion in Washington is a prerequisite for any successful negotiator, and Gottemoeller was fortunate she had one.

The Ultimate Goal: Ratification

There are countries where ratification of a treaty signed by the president is a pro forma matter. The United States is not one of them. The constitutional requirement that U.S. treaties require the “advice and consent” of the Senate by a two-thirds majority vote fundamentally shapes ratification politics. The United States has a deep commitment to freedom of action and tends to dislike being bound by any treaty, no matter how benign. Thus, it is always an uphill battle to achieve advice and consent.

Ratification has official and unofficial components. The official aspects are well understood. When submitted, the treaty is accompanied by a detailed article-by-article analysis so that the Senate and the executive branch can be clear on what they are approving. Hearings are held, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of questions for the record are asked and answered. Some questions may embody a deeply held concern that needs to be met by a skillful, nuanced answer. The crucial vote of a single senator could hang on that answer. Because it is difficult to know what questions could be important, immense effort must be put into all answers. The arduous nature of this process is only completely clear to those who have been through it.

Another aspect of ratification is building informal support from outside government. Gottemoeller's book is invaluable in illuminating this process. Working with long-time State Department official Terri Lodge, who performed a similar function with both treaties I negotiated but with far less help from me, Gottemoeller organized a deluge of pro-treaty letters aimed at individual senators, as well as pro-treaty statements from many religious denominations. The purpose was to strengthen support among senators already committed to the treaty and provide those who were still on the fence with further justification for favoring ratification.

The final aspect of ratification, also well described in the book, is to ensure that the resolution of ratification passed by the Senate does not contain any poison pills. The resolution for New START is six pages long. Few non-experts think it is important, and even fewer have read it. It provides some “sense of the Senate” nonbinding language and a long series of actions, ,primarily reports, the executive branch must take prior to ratification. What it does not include and what Gottemoeller and Lodge worked diligently to prevent was any condition requiring action by Russia that could preclude the treaty from coming into force. That is what happened in 1996 when the Senate’s approval of START II, which would have banned all intercontinental ballistic missiles with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, directed that ratification “shall not be interpreted as an obligation by the United States to accept any modification, change in scope, or extension” of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. After the Russian legislature’s ratification law required U.S. ratification of the 1997 ABM Demarcation Agreements as a condition for START II to enter into force, it became impossible to bring the treaty into effect.

The Indispensable Factor: Leadership

The United States prides itself on being a nation of rugged individualists. Yet, most significant accomplishments are made by groups motivated by and directed toward a common purpose. Providing that motivation and direction is the function of leadership. Without Gottemoeller’s consistent leadership, New START would never have been completed. That is true for any negotiation, but Gottemoeller’s style was unique.

Cold War arms control delegations were hierarchal. There were a head of delegation and usually a deputy, the members representing each of the major agencies, and technical experts. The delegation was certainly not run like a military organization, but the hierarchy was clear, and the leadership style was often characterized by top-down direction. By contrast, Gottemoeller worked to create a family atmosphere. She recounts the major effort it took to host a Thanksgiving dinner at her apartment and, later, an Easter dinner. Her book is replete with her concerns for keeping the family happy and functioning. Although she is kind enough to mention the efforts of my late wife when I was the chief START negotiator, we did nothing like this. Readers should also note that whenever she describes a success, she inevitably gives credit to those on her delegation who created that success. Whenever there are problems, she does not speak of individuals but simply acknowledges the problem. That shows graciousness and sound leadership.

Did this leadership style contribute to her success? That is inherently an unanswerable question, but she undoubtedly succeeded, and her unique leadership style pervades the book. Indeed, students of leadership may wish to read this book entirely to understand a leadership style that is uncommon in government.

Although most of Gottemoeller’s decisions struck me as correct, I do have two quibbles. I was surprised that, faced with the imminent expiration of START, she suggested that the two presidents sign the new treaty along with a protocol containing major verification provisions while leaving detailed technical verification annexes for a subsequent agreement. In the Cold War, such a proposal would have enraged conservatives who believed that verification deserved equal prominence with actual limits. Indeed, for the 1991 START, conservatives insisted that each of the seven annexes that dealt with verification be signed by the presidents individually to avoid any impression that verification was secondary. Because the Obama White House did not accept Gottemoeller’s idea, we will never know if modern conservatives would have had the same reaction.

I could find only one, understandable error. During the end of negotiations, the White House directed two senior State Department officials to visit Geneva to “assist” the delegation. When the delegation interpreted this as a lack of confidence, Gottemoeller sought to reassure them by claiming that an even larger group had been sent during the endgame of the first START. Although this was doubtless reassuring, it is incorrect. There was no one from Washington sent to Geneva in the final days of the 1991 negotiations.

The book’s last full chapter is a collection of lessons learned, each discussed in thoughtful detail. Readers who cannot spare the time for the whole book should read at least this final chapter.

At the same time, these are lessons for negotiating a bilateral arms control treaty, and they should not be misinterpreted. Although Gottemoeller is justly proud of what she and her team accomplished, it would be a mistake to assume her approach will be adequate for negotiating the follow-on to New START. Because the U.S. and Russian presidents made clear the limitations of what they were seeking to accomplish, Gottemoeller could insist, for example, that ballistic missile defense was not a subject for discussion. That is unlikely to be the case in the future.

The negotiations that will soon begin on what follows New START will be more complex and challenging. The two sides will need to deal with ballistic missile defense, with what the Russians call “conventional strategic strike,” and with the implications of space and cyberspace, as well as unmanned vehicles and artificial intelligence.

As China increases its strategic forces, it will be necessary to determine how that country influences bilateral negotiations with Russia. Although it is doubtful China will soon or perhaps ever join the United States and Russia in formal arms control negotiations, many topics, including space, could and should be discussed in separate multilateral negotiations.

The United States will have to be much better prepared for the follow-on negotiations. That will entail rebuilding the capability that used to exist within the government's career force, especially at the State Department. It will mean using the recently initiated Strategic Stability Dialogue to revitalize the interagency process and to develop procedures for backstopping. The government must integrate experts in space, cyberspace, and other disciplines with those traditionally involved in nuclear negotiations. It must bring new experts with fresh ideas into the career civil and foreign services. Only then will the country be ready to build on the significant accomplishments that New START represents.

This is a forward-looking and optimistic book, as reflected in the author’s last two sentences: “Despite deep differences between Washington and Moscow…we must continue to make progress in controlling and limiting nuclear weapons. It is our responsibility to humanity.”

I read those words as a public skeptic, having argued that New START would be the last bilateral nuclear arms control treaty.1 Yet, the notion of our responsibility to humanity, and to our grandchildren, is a powerful one. There is no doubt Gottemoeller is right in the long term. The question is whether she can be right in the few years left before 2026, when New START expires for good.

In her prologue, Gottemoeller says one of her aims in writing the book was “spurring people young and old to think about the opportunities and challenges in the field. In particular, my wish is that this book will inspire new negotiators to enter the game.” She adds that “negotiating a nuclear treaty…requires a clear-eyed sense of where U.S. national interest lies. Then, we must negotiate so that the treaty serves that interest.”

If arms control has a future, it will be because a new generation has taken up her challenge and embraced the optimism of her prologue. No matter how the challenges of the future are ultimately resolved, those trying to shape them will benefit from reading and rereading this remarkable book.


1. Linton Brooks, “The End of Arms Control,” Daedalus, Vol. 149, No. 2 (April 2020): 84–100.


Linton F. Brooks has over six decades of experience in national security. He served from July 2002 to January 2007 as administrator of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, responsible for the U.S. nuclear weapons program and for the department’s international nuclear nonproliferation programs. In the early 1990s, he was the chief U.S. negotiator for the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Currently, he is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University.