Arms control held hostage

President-elect Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have wisely promised to extend the 2010 New START Treaty, which cuts long-range nuclear arms. The two leaders may also pursue a broader follow-on accord, but frigid U.S.-Russian relations could put this out of reach.

Progress on arms control often comes when political winds are warmer.

  • After the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Washington and Moscow sought to relieve anxiety. In 1963 they inked the Limited Test Ban Treaty, forbidding nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water. They also set up a “hotline“ to help manage crises. 
  • In 1972 amid a détente in U.S.-Soviet relations,General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and President Richard Nixon signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) accords. The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty limited defenses against long-range, or strategic, missiles and the Interim Agreement limited offensive strategic arms.
  • In 1987 as President Mikhail Gorbachev was wooing the West, he and President Ronald Reagan signed the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. It was the first arms control pact to ban an entire class of nuclear arms. 
  • In 1991 as U.S.-USSR relations continued their upswing, President George H. W. Bush and Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), the first to reduce rather than just limit offensive strategic forces.
  • In 2002, amid post-9/11 relaxation, Presidents George W. Bush and Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which paved the way for a two-thirds cut in offensive strategic forces. 
  • In 2010 during a “reset” aimed at easing overall strains, Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama signed the New START Treaty, which further reduced these forces.

All these accords were implemented, but some others were not.  

In 1979 Brezhnev and President Jimmy Carter signed the SALT II Treaty despite caustic relations occasioned by U.S. human rights criticisms, growing Soviet missile threats against Europe and Japan, and soon the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Against this unpromising backdrop the U.S. Senate failed to approve the treaty. In 1993, George H. W. Bush and President Boris Yeltsin signed the START II Treaty, but discord stymied entry into force and SORT bypassed it.

Today’s divisive relations are reminiscent of those which helped scuttle SALT II. They may foreclose early progress on a new accord, yet productive work can be done.  

Reagan showed how. In the early-1980s despite hostile relations with Moscow, he offered bold arms control visions — a ban on land-based missiles of INF range, and a halving of deployed strategic offensive arms. Hardline Brezhnev-era leaders angrily rejected them. 

Years later these ambitions came to pass with the INF and START I treaties, but only after Gorbachev and his reformist team assumed power in the mid-1980s. 

The Biden administration could take a similar tack. It might advance broad ideas for a new accord and begin intensive analysis of ways to solve potential obstacles.

One conundrum is whether and how a follow-on accord might encompass the nuclear arms of China, France and the UK. There is U.S. interest in including China, which plans to double the size of its nuclear forces. In return Moscow and Beijing, if it joined the negotiations which it now opposes, would surely insist that French and UK forces be included. Because all three countries’ nuclear arsenals are far smaller than U.S. and Russian forces, careful diplomacy may be required to bring these countries onboard. 

A second tough nut is whether and how to accommodate Washington’s goal of constraining Moscow’s numerical advantage in shorter-range and non-deployed nuclear arms. They have not been limited in previous accords. Any agreement could require verification so intrusive that it might be nonnegotiable or technologically infeasible.

In the early 1980s, a paranoid and ill-informed KGB warned Soviet leaders that Reagan might launch a surprise nuclear attack. Two years ago in a less strident vein, Putin cautioned that risks of nuclear war were “underestimated.” Although these fears seem excessive, Washington might help calm concerns by seeking early, constructive talks with Moscow. 

Achieving a major new accord, however, may depend more on a turnaround in political fortunes than on the skills of arms control negotiators.  

William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia and the U.S.-Soviet Commission to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty and deputy U.S. negotiator in the U.S.-Soviet Defense and Space Talks in Geneva. 

Tags Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty Barack Obama Détente Foreign relations of the Soviet Union Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Nuclear weapons Russia Russia–United States relations Soviet Union Soviet Union–United States relations START I Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty Vladimir Putin

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