The nuclear crisis makes clear: Time to reimagine arms control

Last week, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Pentagon waiting for Saudi assessment on attack | Defense bill talks begin | Border fight takes centerstage | Pentagon finalizes .5B in wall contracts | US withholds Afghan aid citing corruption House Armed Services panel gets classified briefing on Saudi attacks US withholds 0M in Afghan aid citing corruption MORE declared that the United States “will suspend our obligations” under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 60 days if Russia does not take measures to return to what the United States believes is a state of compliance. This comes after years of U.S. accusations that Russia is violating the treaty by developing and later deploying an intermediate-range, ground-launched cruise missile.  

As the fate of the INF Treaty has been increasingly in question since October, we’ve spent significant time discussing the U.S. threat to withdraw with current and former government officials from the United States, NATO and East Asian allies, and Russia. The overriding lesson from these recent conversations with international counterparts: the current state of global nuclear affairs is worse than we thought.

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There is no sign that Russia will change its position of denying that it violated the INF Treaty. Russian officials hold the line that the ground-launched cruise missile system in question does not fall within the treaty’s prohibited delivery range. Russian President Vladimir Putin now has no reason to change course; the announcement of an American move to torpedo the treaty allows him to appear as the responsible nuclear actor.

We expect this response from Russia, but a less-expected dynamic is emerging from European and NATO countries: many European officials long ago gave up hope ago that the Trump administration will remain party to the INF Treaty. Worse, NATO-country officials who believe the INF already is lost expressed deep concern that trying to save it will further aggravate U.S.-Russian tensions. Their focus is shifting to managing the aftermath of an end to the INF Treaty in ways that avoid escalating crisis.

This loss of faith in U.S. decision-making stems in part from trends that pre-date the Trump administration, including policy tensions that exist in all alliances. But the current loss of hope that the INF Treaty can survive also is fueled by mounting strains on international norms and institutions caused in part by U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement, the Iran nuclear agreement, and various trade deals.

The Trump administration should cease this trend and work to save the INF Treaty. Aside from that, the single most impactful way for U.S. leaders to rebuild trust among our allies is to exercise the New START Treaty’s provision to extend it another five years beyond its 2021 expiration.

Yet, INF and a New START extension are necessary but not nearly sufficient. It is time to reimagine arms control.

It seems lost in this diplomatic crisis that we’ve already entered a new arms race. Here in the United States, we are moving forward with plans to expand nuclear weapon capabilities by developing new nuclear options in air- and sea-launched cruise missiles and a low-yield nuclear sea-launched ballistic missile warhead, among other things.

We are not alone. In March, Putin outlined a vision for expanding Russia’s nuclear capabilities. There is growing concern regarding trends in Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, in particular regarding tactical nuclear weapons. India may develop a nuclear variant to its Brahmos conventional cruise missile systems; if it does, it is hard to believe China and Pakistan won’t join in developing their first arsenals of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

The Indo-Pacific part of arms control equations needs serious attention. U.S. commentary about the INF Treaty withdrawal has focused heavily on China, frequently claiming that INF-violating weapons would significantly expand U.S. military options vis-a-vis China.

For our allies in East Asia and Europe with whom we’ve spoken, they do not buy what they consider “the China excuse” for INF Treaty withdrawal. Most believe it is meant to distract from the systematic destruction of global norms and institutions some Trump administration leaders seem intent on.

Regardless, we need to develop arms control concepts that can include Asia. Future nuclear agreements may begin with non-legally-binding political commitments, or focus first on restraint from developing new nuclear capabilities that no countries in Asia currently possess. Any future arms control agreements should include mechanisms for additional countries joining over time.

Trump and Putin still can save the INF Treaty. But whether it remains in force or is demolished, the crisis over its fate must mark the starting point in a new future for global arms control.

The Hon. Andy Weber is a senior fellow with the Council on Strategic Risks. From 2009-2014, he served as assistant secretary of Defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs. He previously held assignments with the Department of State and Office of the Secretary of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @andyweberncb.

Christine Parthemore is a program director of the Council on Strategic Risks and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. She previously served as senior adviser to the assistant secretary of Defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs. Follow her on Twitter @clparthemore.