A Treaty to Prevent a New Arms Race Is Dying on Trump's Watch | Opinion

The United States and Russia have an extensive list of policy differences that make the bilateral relationship complex to manage. Washington and Moscow often find each other facing off on opposite sides, making the relationship sometimes toxic and always politicized.

However, with over 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons between them, one of the issues that shouldn't be so contentious is the promotion of strategic stability. Since about the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia have always found a way to preserve a semblance of control and transparency in the nuclear domain. Yet we are now dangerously close to letting one of the most effective nuclear restraint treaties die—not with a bang but with a whimper.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov could have used their one-day conference in Washington last week to preserve the New START agreement, the last guardrail separating the world's nuclear giants from engaging in another arms race. Unfortunately, the Trump administration let this opportunity slip through its fingers.

Extending New START is one of those rare no-brainer decisions in a world where simple solutions are an endangered species. The agreement, which caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads on each side at 1,550 and the number of launch platforms at 700 apiece, has effectively prevented Washington and Moscow from pursuing an alternative course of action that would result in more nuclear proliferation and far less mutual understanding.

New START's verification protocols grant U.S. and Russian nuclear inspectors the ability to monitor one another's facilities to ensure compliance. The sharing of highly detailed information on U.S. and Russian nuclear assets, movements and infrastructure is formalized, giving the leadership in both countries the kind of valuable intelligence that calms nerves. Without these limitations and transparency mechanisms, it's highly likely national security officials in Washington and Moscow would assume the very worst about the other side, leading to more aggressive nuclear strategies and a heightening of tension in a bilateral relationship that is already at its least productive in decades.

New START also serves as a diplomatic forcing mechanism for two nations that are not talking as much as they should. With the treaty in force, U.S. and Russian officials can get together and ask questions, discuss their concerns and amplify their goals. This type of dialogue is enormously beneficial to militaries around the world, both to increase situational awareness and to minimize the possibility of disputes leading to miscalculations. As U.S. European Command Commander Tom Wolters told reporters on December 10, "Anything that affords me the opportunity to increase dialogue [with Russia] is probably of assistance."

New START expires in February 2021, a little more than a year from today. Moscow is prepared to extend the treaty for another five years, with President Vladimir Putin stating publicly that he is willing to do so immediately and without preconditions. Lavrov reaffirmed Russia's position during a joint press conference at the State Department. All it takes is a willingness from the U.S. to pull out a pen and sign on the dotted line.

Sergey Lavrov and Mike Pompeo
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov take part in a press conference at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., on December 10. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty

Yet Pompeo and President Donald Trump continue to hold out for a bigger and more comprehensive arms control accord, one where China is a participant and all types of strategic and non-strategic weapons are included.

Neither of these objectives are realistic right now. The Chinese continue to view the Trump administration's position as absurd; they see no reason to restrict themselves to the same criteria when their own arsenal is about 1/20th the size of Washington's and 1/22nd the size of Moscow's. Unless the United States is willing to let Beijing build up to more than 6,000 warheads or decides to exponentially reduce its own arsenal to China's level—neither of which Washington would support—the prospect of a grand U.S.-Russia-China arms control agreement happening on the president's watch is a fantasy.

By insisting on the impossible, the U.S. is susceptible to getting nothing at all.

One should applaud Trump's ambition to bring more countries and new forms of weapons and military technology into the discussion. But sacrificing a pragmatic, bilateral strategic nuclear agreement to the whims of a miracle is bad strategy and even worse statecraft. If stabilizing U.S.-Russia relations is difficult with New START, it will be infinitely harder without it.

There is a deal on the table, and it's right under Trump's nose: sign an extension and use the time to explore other arrangements with the Russians and the Chinese. Another moment spent on a fantasy proposal is another one lost on what should be the first priority: staving off a new period of destabilizing and dangerous nuclear competition.

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

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