Trump's fake news on arms control?

Trump's fake news on arms control?
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Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSmearing presidential election will turn off young voters and undermine democracy 'Black Panther' star criticized for sharing video questioning COVID-19 vaccine Black voters: Low propensity, or low priority? MORE on April 8, 2010, called last week for the United States to agree to extend the treaty. On Friday, a Department of State spokesperson told the Russian news agency TASS in response:  “The President has directed us to think more broadly than New START…  We stand ready to engage with both Russia and China on arms control negotiations that meet our criteria.”

Unfortunately, nothing suggests President TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE will achieve anything on nuclear arms control.

Trump has long talked big about limiting nuclear weapons. In December 2018, he tweeted, “I am certain that, at some time in the future, [China’s] President Xi and I, together with President PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinMoscow begins distributing vaccines in 'large-scale' COVID-19 immunization effort How Trump's election lawsuits became his worst nightmare Enforcing the Presidential Records Act is essential for preserving our democracy's transparency, history MORE of Russia, will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable arms race.”


In April 2019, he ordered development of a proposal for a trilateral negotiation that would cover nuclear weapons beyond those constrained by New START. Last December, he said, “Russia wants to make a deal very much on arms control and nuclear…  And we’ll also certainly bring in, as you know, China.” 

Limiting all types of nuclear arms and including China are laudable ambitions, but the record offers few grounds for hope. The administration instead has dismantled existing agreements.

Trump withdrew from the agreement constraining Iran’s nuclear program, even though the U.S. intelligence community found Iran in compliance. He withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with no serious effort to persuade Russia, which had violated the accord, to return to compliance. And his administration appears intent on withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty. 

New START expires next February. While it can be extended by up to five years, and Putin is ready to agree, the Trump administration has not taken up the offer. 

Asked about extension in 2017, administration officials said two things had to occur first: The Defense Department had to complete its nuclear posture review, and Russia had to meet New START’s limits when they took full effect. Both of those things happened in February 2018, but officials continued to defer on the extension issue. In June 2019,  then-National Security Adviser Bolton called the treaty “flawed,” adding that “while no decision has been made, it is unlikely to be extended. We need to focus on something better.” 


The “something better,” apparently, is Trump’s proposed U.S.-Russian-Chinese negotiation.  There are some serious administration officials working on arms control. Yet well more than a year after the president raised the idea, his administration has offered no proposal, or even the outline of an idea, for what such a negotiation would look like or achieve.

And neither Moscow nor Beijing has responded with any enthusiasm to the trilateral idea.

Russian officials have long maintained that they would not discuss other types of nuclear arms –specifically, non-strategic weapons that are not limited by New START – unless the United States addressed issues important to Russia. Those include missile defense and long-range conventional strikes. The Trump administration shows no readiness to address either topic. 

Chinese officials have regularly rejected participation in nuclear arms negotiations, either in a trilateral format or just with the United States, noting the large disparity in nuclear warhead numbers — some 300 for China as opposed to about 4,000 each for the United States and Russia.  Might something entice Beijing to change its mind? Washington does not appear to have tried.

On February 29, Trump pointed to a possible summit of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council in September as a venue for discussing his proposal, claiming that Russia, China, Britain and France “all want to now discuss arms control.” In March, his statement marking the 50th anniversary of the Nonproliferation Treaty said the United States “will be proposing a bold new trilateral arms control initiative with Russia and China…”

The world continues to wait for that bold initiative. Meanwhile, no one in the administration can explain why Moscow or Beijing, both of which have made their positions utterly clear, would agree. Even if the Russian and Chinese leaders were inclined to negotiate, why would they offer concessions in September, less than two months before the U.S. election? Particularly in view of Trump’s inept handling of the COVID-19 crisis, they would assume a serious prospect that he will no longer be president come January 20, 2021.

White House and administration officials surely understand this, but they continue to suggest that much can be achieved with the president’s big new arms control vision — whatever it may be.  Fifteen months after Trump broached the idea, it is beginning to look like fake news.

Steven Pifer is a William Perry Research Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and retired foreign service officer.