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American arms control leadership: What now?

US-Russia Summit 2021 In Geneva
Photo by Peter Klaunzer - Pool/Keystone via Getty Images
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – JUNE 16: U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet during the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange on June 16, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland. Biden was meeting his Russian counterpart, Putin, for the first time as president in Geneva, Switzerland.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Feb. 21 he was suspending Russia’s participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The suspension jeopardizes the existing arms control agenda, along with potentially increasing nuclear risks amidst the war in Ukraine. But it also presents the Biden administration with a difficult challenge: How can America lead on arms control and reduce nuclear risks when there is no arms control to be had?

At first glance, it would seem the Biden administration has backed itself into a corner. It has so fully committed to advancing arms control that to back off now, despite Russia’s aggression and China’s reticence, would risk a loss of credibility with the wider international community, to include among many allies and non-nuclear weapon states invested in the future of nuclear arms control and disarmament. Since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the slow breakdown in dialogue, the United States has nonetheless maintained a commitment to advancing arms control initiatives.

Initially, the administration offered a bold statement and vision in its 2021 Interim National Security Guidance, stating, “We will head off costly arms races and re-establish our credibility as a leader in arms control.” This language was more nuanced in the October 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, which pledged, “a renewed emphasis on arms control, non-proliferation, and risk reduction to strengthen stability, head off costly arms races, and signal our desire to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons globally.” Pursuing even this more modest agenda faces at least three major challenges.

First, and most obviously, arms control partners are in short supply. Not only has Russia suspended participation in one of the last remaining agreements, but it also has a dismal track record of non-compliance with previous arms control agreements, such as the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Additionally, China has continued to resist overtures to engage in bilateral arms control and continues to quantitatively and qualitatively expand its nuclear arsenal.

The second challenge is internal:  Any future arms control treaties would require the advice and consent of two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. Given current domestic polarization, along with a potential hawkish consensus within Congress, support for arms control could be perceived as foreign policy weakness. Russia’s suspension of New START has already prompted calls for the United States to withdraw from the treaty. In short, arms control does not have clear domestic support, though obviously it would depend on the details of any future agreement.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly at present, America must walk a delicate balance between leading on arms control and assuring allies of its commitment to their security. This is not a new challenge: During the Cold War, for example, President Reagan not only had to negotiate with President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev but also had to reassure Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher and other NATO leaders to ensure any arms control agreements did not directly or indirectly undermine their security. Many of these allies’ concerns are political, whereby they fear cooperating with Russia on arms control could equate to a softening in U.S. resolve. The Biden administration cannot afford to be seen as jeopardizing credibility with allies at this moment.

Here it is important to clarify what arms control is and what it is not. Arms control is not a gift. Arms control is not disarmament, nor is it necessarily legally binding treaties with competitors. Arms control is neither Republican nor Democrat, neither hawkish nor dovish. Arms control, at its best, works in tandem with deterrence to strengthen strategic stability. In a recent event at Brookings, Mallory Stewart, assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, noted, “Arms control is a tool. You can’t kill it.”

Arms control can be in the U.S. national interest. Historically, this entailed strengthening strategic stability to reduce risks of arms racing and crisis escalation. But now, arms control can play a more ambitious role by advancing America’s role in the evolving competition with Russia and China for influence in the world order. A broader approach to arms control — working in tandem with deterrence and as an enduring tool for security — offers a way ahead for the administration on arms control leadership while concurrently standing up to Russian aggression and bullying. Rather than begging Moscow to return to arms control is not an option or making unilateral cuts, the administration should focus on building partner coalitions for multilateral risk reduction efforts that strengthen America’s and allies’ security and are in the national interest.

To some extent, this work has already begun. In one recent example, in April 2022 the United States announced a ban on anti-satellite testing, which was subsequently picked up by like-minded states and was passed as a United Nations General Assembly Resolution in December 2022 with the support of 155 countries. And on Feb. 16, the Biden administration launched an initiative on responsible behavior in artificial intelligence, to include human control in nuclear decision-making. This announcement five days before Russia’s suspension of New START was a stark juxtaposition between Moscow and Washington’s commitments to risk reduction. While these initiatives may not appear as ambitious as dramatic reductions in nuclear arsenals, they work to lay the groundwork for a new nuclear order that will emerge in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine. The Biden administration is wise to differentiate itself from Putin in shaping that new order.

Arms control leadership in the current climate is nonetheless challenging for the administration. It must ensure any new initiatives work in tandem with the nuclear posture and partnership between the Departments of State and Defense. It must also ensure allies support these efforts and that arms control leadership does not undermine NATO unity or America’s credibility as a security guarantor.

In her exceptional 2022 Reith lecture, former White House national security official Fiona Hill outlined how Putin uses nuclear weapons to manipulate fear. She said, “He knows how to deploy fear for maximum effect. Putin has long threatened to play the nuclear card, because he knows the psychological impact it has and the sense of helplessness and hopelessness it engenders.” Gathering like-minded states, strengthening alliances and developing new ways to reduce nuclear risks are just a handful of the many ways of standing up to the man in Moscow. Leading on arms control is an act of defiance in the face of Putin’s attempts to tear down the rules-based international order. Leading on arms control in the midst of a crisis is hardly reckless. Rather, it’s what responsible nuclear states do.

Heather Williams, Ph.D., is the director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She was previously a visiting fellow with the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School and a senior lecturer in defene studies at King’s College London. Follow her on Twitter: @heatherwilly

Tags International National security New START Treaty Nuclear proliferation Nuclear weapons Russia Vladimir Putin

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