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Upcoming nuclear arms talks with Russia a chance to save this key treaty

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Senior American and Russian diplomats will converge in Vienna beginning June 22 for arms control negotiations   — possibly, a State Department official told Bloomberg, even laying the groundwork to extend the New START deal set to expire in February.

That willingness is a welcome, if small, a sign of progress. President Trump’s threats — let the treaty expire if Moscow will not grant new concessions and Beijing will not sign on — are not strategically useful and do not serve American security interests. If the administration is newly open to extending New START, that is a worthwhile project for these talks in June and should be accomplished.

Named for a previous arms reduction treaty signed in the final days of the Soviet Union, New START is an Obama administration accomplishment that took effect in 2011 with an initial one-decade term. It limited deployed nuclear warheads, ballistic missile launchers, and bombers in both the United States and Russia, and it requires each partner to allow inspections of its nuclear stockpile. New START is widely considered a success, not only in the military and intelligence communities and Congress but also among the American people—eight in 10 support extending it past 2021, per a 2019 poll.

Trump disagrees for the usual reason he objects to extending diplomatic agreements signed by his predecessor: He thinks he can do better.

We saw the same hubris at play in Trump’s departure from the Iran nuclear deal, albeit with far more significant short-term consequences than abandoning New START is likely to occasion. There, too, Trump left an established agreement in pursuit of a grander one—and he ended up with nothing but setbacks in U.S.-Iran relations and a truly dangerous pattern of regional escalation, even putting us on the very precipice of war in January.

Leaving New START is unlikely to have such dramatic immediate effects, but it is similarly reckless. Here, Trump wants to broaden the deal’s control of Moscow’s behavior, and he wants it expanded into a three-way deal in which China is committed to arms reductions as well.

This is an unrealistic goal on both counts. Russia doesn’t want to broaden New START to limit other arms production: Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov has made clear Moscow intends to “stick with” the current treaty. And China — which has about 1/20 the nuclear warhead stockpile of either the United States or Russia and a no-first-use policy for nuclear strikes — doesn’t want to join New START, especially not on the Trump administration’s terms.

Even if a trilateral deal involving China were possible, experts generally agree it is not achievable before the February deadline. The Trump administration doesn’t “have time to renegotiate or negotiate a new treaty,” former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen said— in April. That is even truer now, as Trump is busy with his campaign and the clock ticks toward the treaty’s expiration.

Instead of a bullheaded insistence on this fantasy expansion plan, Trump should take a more realist and diplomatic approach. Extending New START is an easy political win given the deal’s broad support. It can be a useful stabilizing influence in U.S.-Russia interaction (Moscow is already on board for five more years), which is under strain in Syria and Eastern Europe. Most important, limiting nuclear arms proliferation and calming great power relations serves U.S. security interests and the cause of peace. The Trump administration should use these summer arms control talks to get back on track for re-upping New START.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Defense One, and The American Conservative, among other outlets. 

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