Biden puts US national security first in extending New START Treaty
Extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, with Russia was one of President Biden’s first foreign policy acts after he took the oath of office on Jan. 20. The treaty would have otherwise ended on Feb. 5, leaving the U.S. and Russia without any agreed upon limits on their strategic nuclear forces for the first time since 1972. When relations are as bad as they are now between Moscow and Washington, U.S. national security would suffer from severe uncertainty over an unconstrained Russian nuclear arsenal.
The treaty in many ways belongs to Biden. After President Obama signed New START in April 2010, he asked Biden to take the lead in working with the Senate to get its advice and consent to its ratification. It was a serious moment: In many ways, I always viewed the negotiation with the senators as every bit as important as the negotiation with the Russians. Without their advice and consent, an important constitutional function, the president cannot bring the treaty into force. Many hard-fought treaties, not only on arms control, have died on the Senate floor.
Joe Biden was the perfect man for the job. He brought years of experience on Capitol Hill, of course, but also an insider’s instinct. Early on, he was confident that he could get the 67 votes needed for ratification, despite that the Republicans were holding their cards close. During one memorable Sunday morning conference call, when others in the White House were panicking, he said calmly, “We have the votes,” and hung up.
Biden’s famous ability to wheel and deal came in handy. Any vote in Congress is transactional. If you’re leading the charge on a particular bill, you have to be ready to sit down with those on the other side – from your party or across the aisle – and convince them to vote with you. That usually involves giving something to get something, whether it’s some words changed, or an issue added.
The ratification process for New START was no different. At the time, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) was exorcised about the state of the nuclear production complex in neighboring New Mexico. And he wanted to ensure that funding would be adequate for modernizing the strategic nuclear triad. In close partnership with Obama, Biden worked the modernization issues swiftly and effectively. Time and again, he invited the senators to the White House to talk about the value of the New START Treaty, but also what it would take to ensure the viability of U.S. nuclear forces into the future.
It may seem strange to both limit and modernize, but Obama had made it clear at the very outset of his presidency that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the U.S. must maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal. Moreover, the Russians had been busily modernizing for over a decade, adding potent ground-launched intercontinental missiles to their arsenal and building new submarines. U.S. forces, meanwhile, were between 40 and 60 years old. The first boat in the U.S. strategic submarine OHIO class had come into the Navy in 1981, and the Air Force was still flying B-52 bombers built in the 1950s.
It was important to modernize but keep the limits on. We did not want the Russians, with their active missile and warhead production lines, to quickly out-build us. New START keeps them and us limited to 700 delivery vehicles (missiles, bombers) and 1,550 warheads. Within these limits, we could modernize, but we were not in danger of getting dragged into an expensive arms race with the Russians.
Today, that same logic applies to the extension of New START. We are still at the beginning of our nuclear modernization while the Russians are wrapping up theirs. Their production lines are still hot, while we are only beginning to build up production capacity. They could still have quickly outrun us if New START went away. For that reason, the full five-year extension makes sense. It gives us the predictable environment that we need to modernize.
At the same time, the Russians have been testing some dangerous new kinds of weapons: super-fast sea-launched missiles using nuclear propulsion, a heavy intercontinental ballistic missile, a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) and an air-launched ballistic missile. Some of these (the heavy missile and the HGV) President Putin has already announced can be put under the limits of New START. That is another important reason to extend the treaty for five years.
The other new missiles must be on the table in a new negotiation. That is why, while extending New START for five years, we need to get back to that table as quickly as possible. We need to get these dangerous new systems under control, put new limits on nuclear warheads and address other tough issues that affect stability between the United States and Russia. We also need to draw China into talks, to focus on constraining the intermediate range missiles at the heart of its force structure — the “carrier killers” that are dangerous to our naval operations in the Pacific. Of course, at any table, we will have to give something to get something.
New talks and the new agreements that emerge from them will be Joe Biden’s own. I have no doubt, given my experience working with him on the ratification of New START, that he will have the savvy to make a bipartisan case for them. He understands that any agreement to control or limit nuclear arms must serve U.S. national security interests. He will make sure that they do.
Rose Gottemoeller is a fellow of the Hoover Institution and the Payne Distinguished Lecturer at Stanford University. In 2009-10, she was chief U.S. negotiator of the New START Treaty. Her book “Negotiating the New START Treaty” will be published in the spring by Cambria Press.