The Agreements that Slowed the Nuclear Arms Race are Collapsing. Can it Still be Stopped? | Opinion

On August 2, the United States and Russia marked a solemn occasion: the death of a 32-year old arms control treaty that severely limited the prospect of a nuclear war in Europe during the height of the Cold War. Moscow's testing and deployment of a treaty-busting ground-launched missile system was a direct violation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and proved to be too much for the two nuclear superpowers to resolve.

In Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's own words, "Russia is solely responsible for the treaty's demise." It was a bad day for those who believe in arms control and strategic stability talks.

Unfortunately, the days could get even worse if another nuclear treaty between Washington and Moscow expires in about 18 months.

The New START treaty, signed in April 2010, was a relatively straightforward but highly technical agreement that capped the number of nuclear warheads the United States and Russia could deploy on intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and heavy bombers to 1,550 apiece. The quantity of deployed launchers on land, in the air, and in the sea was also fixed at 700, introducing a degree of strategic parity between the world's two largest nuclear powers.

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Just as important, New START established a diligent system of verification, which has provided Washington and Moscow with a high degree of confidence that both sides are adhering to the restrictions. According to the Federation of American Scientists, 294 on-site inspections and nearly 18,000 data exchanges have been conducted since February 2011–information that is absolutely critical for American and Russian inspectors as they seek to document compliance. The treaty represents precisely what an arms control agreement should be: effective and verifiable.

Unfortunately, this agreement may very well be on the verge of extinction just like its INF cousin. If not extended for another five years by mutual consent, New START—the last edifice of an arms control regime that has lasted for over 50 years—expires in February 2021. If the accord dies without a replacement, there will be nothing on the books dissuading either the United States or Russia from producing and deploying as many nuclear warheads as it wishes. For two countries that already possess 90% of the world's nuclear weapons stockpile, a renewal of nuclear competition or worse, a 21st century arms race, is simply untenable.

The Trump administration has suggested that New START is a flawed treaty that should be revised or circumvented altogether to incorporate more weapons systems and more participants. National Security Adviser John Bolton, a man who has never met an arms control agreement he hasn't wanted to destroy, stated it was unlikely the accord would be extended without China also being a party of it. President Donald Trump also hopes to eventually create a more comprehensive, trilateral strategic dialogue with the Russians and Chinese which would encompass the type of non-strategic weapons not covered under the original treaty.

Trump's desire to address other weapons systems, from cyber and hypersonic cruise missiles to tactical nuclear weapons, is noble. But just because it's a noble objective doesn't make the feat easier to achieve. A U.S.-Russia-China framework will require highly detailed negotiations over a period of years and will almost certainly include a lot of fits and starts along the way. New START took nearly a year to negotiate; to finalize another pact with a broader array of weapons platforms, missiles, and launchers as well as an additional party would take far longer.

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To hold an effective bilateral nuclear agreement hostage to a grander deal—particularly when China has shown no interest in joining such a tripartite dialogue until Washington and Moscow significantly reduce their own nuclear stockpiles—is a recipe for disaster.

Like all diplomacy, the world of arms control is the art of the possible. Demanding too many concessions at the table or holding out for a pie-in-the-sky objective often results in no deal at all. For the U.S. to dismiss realistic arms control in favor of building ever-more sophisticated strategic weapons would be to encourage a return to Cold War-style nuclear rivalry. Russia would be guaranteed to respond to any U.S. buildup in order to maintain parity, increasing the probability of a dangerous miscalculation and further degrading a U.S.-Russia relationship that is already at its worst since the early 1980's.

The Elders, a group of distinguished statesmen, are right: with over 12,600 nuclear warheads between them, the United States and Russia "share responsibility for the future to uphold arms control treaties and pursue disarmament." The White House should take these words seriously and extend New START before it's too late.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

The Agreements that Slowed the Nuclear Arms Race are Collapsing. Can it Still be Stopped? | Opinion | Opinion