Is Washington’s arms control theology finally on the verge of collapse?
Three freshly installed Republican House chairmen of key national security committees are raising potentially fatal issues for the New START arms-control treaty between the U.S. and Russia. In letters to Biden Cabinet officials, the chairmen ask whether Russia is in material breach of the agreement. Along with the administration’s failing, misguided effort to rejoin the flawed 2015 Iran nuclear deal, one could ask whether Washington’s arms control theology is finally verging on collapse.
The House chairmen of the Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and Intelligence Committees (Reps. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Michael Turner (R-Ohio), respectively) are men to be reckoned with. Although the Senate has constitutional power to ratify treaties, for the next two years, House Republicans can require extensive scrutiny of Russia’s New START performance.
One of President Biden’s first official acts (and a badly mistaken one) was extending the treaty until Feb. 4, 2026, after America’s 2024 presidential election. With no end in sight to Russia’s war in Ukraine, the odds Moscow and Washington can agree on a successor deal under Biden diminish every day, further reason to ensure the White House fully describes Russia’s potential treaty violations.
The House chairmen should also scrutinize White House efforts to make enough concessions to Tehran for Washington to revive the Iran nuclear deal. Despite administration assurances that Iran’s ongoing uprising against the ayatollahs has halted its diplomacy, the obsession to rejoin remains.
New START has always been a bad deal. Its warhead limits and “counting rules” for attributing nuclear devices to delivery vehicles, Cold War-era methodologies, are outdated and ineffective. Moreover, New START’s ceilings, even in their day, failed to reflect the different status of Russia and the United States, as President George W. Bush’s 2002 Treaty of Moscow did, namely that Washington needs different upper limits than Moscow because it faces more threats than just a bipolar face-off with Russia.
Finally, New START’s verification provisions do not afford nearly the level of certainty necessary to satisfy U.S. concerns, given decades of cheating on similar agreements by Russia and other authoritarian states, which all have problems with the truth.
In today’s world, New START is even more dangerous, which is why Biden’s 2021 decision to extend its terms for five years without any modifications leaves America in an ever-more-precarious position.
Added to these pre-existing concerns, the questions raised by Chairmen McCaul, Rogers and Turner underscore legitimate concerns about the treaty even if Russia were fully compliant.
The State Department has reportedly sent Congress a report that finds that Russian violated the treaty’s verification and consultation provisions, which State says are repairable. Desperate to save New START, the more serious violations of concern to the three chairmen are not addressed. Congressional oversight is clearly warranted.
Even beyond the failures of New START itself and the prospect that Russia is violating it, the agreement is fatally outdated for additional reasons. Here, the three Republican chairmen and their Senate counterparts can do important work over the next two years to elaborate on these new issues and to prepare a successor administration to address the dangers ahead.
First, the days of meaningful bilateral U.S.-Russian strategic weapons treaties have ended. During the Cold War, we lived in essentially a bipolar nuclear world, the arsenals of other nuclear states, legitimate or illegitimate, being insignificant for our purposes.
Today, however, China is rapidly manufacturing and deploying nuclear warheads in significant numbers, likely approaching the New START limits applicable to Russia and the U.S. imminently. The U.S. simply cannot accept bilateral limits on its nuclear stockpiles or delivery systems when it will soon face two peer or near-peer nuclear adversaries, a dramatically dangerous new environment.
Whether Moscow and Beijing combine against Washington, or we face one confrontation with the risk of another following, we are in a tri-polar nuclear world, and must plan and act accordingly. Thus far, China has flatly refused to engage in diplomacy, saying its current warhead stockpile is too low to join U.S.-Russia talks. Beijing is essentially asking for a pass until it comes close to our existing ceilings, and only then talk, an approach in which Russia has acquiesced. We should tell Moscow sooner rather than later that there will be no talks on extending or modifying New START until China sits at our negotiating table.
Second, a basic New START flaw is its failure to limit tactical nuclear weapons, which Moscow possesses in far greater numbers than Washington. With Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening to use tactical strikes in Ukraine, there is no longer a serious argument to allow this issue to remain outside the overall nuclear-arms negotiations. If Russia disagrees, we should not resume talks, and should make our own plans at both the strategic and tactical levels accordingly. The potential for substantially broader coverage of nuclear warheads also raises new, difficult verification issues beyond the existing treaty’s failings.
Third, New START fails to deal satisfactorily with new technologies that have matured since 2010, especially advanced hypersonic capabilities. Biden’s failure to address these new developments before extending the treaty in 2021 was a grave mistake, and it would be diplomatic malpractice to repeat it in discussing a successor deal.
While we consider our post-New START options, we are also, hopefully, witnessing the last throes of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. For any number of compelling reasons, the White House should do far more to support the Iranian opposition and its struggle to overthrow the ayatollahs.
One benefit of regime change in Tehran would likely be a new government that renounces the pursuit of nuclear weapons and opens the files of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and other actors in its nuclear-weapons program. We will undoubtedly learn far more about how the mullahs led western governments by the nose during the negotiation and implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal, and especially how Iran repeatedly violated it. This new information might even shake the faith of the arms-control priesthood, but at a minimum it would enlighten those determined to prevent nuclear proliferation.
These are all issues for the 2024 campaign. Chairmen McCaul, Rogers and Turner have done the country a great service by getting us started.
John Bolton was national security adviser to President Trump from 2018 to 2019, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006 and held senior State Department posts in 2001-2005 and 1985-1989. His most recent book is “The Room Where It Happened” (2020). He is the founder of John Bolton Super PAC, a political action committee supporting candidates who believe in a strong U.S. foreign policy.
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