Congress plays critical role in averting nuclear armageddon

Congress plays critical role in averting nuclear armageddon
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Just one week after taking office, President Biden reached out to Vladimir Putin seeking an extension of the New Start Treaty regarding nuclear arms control, even as he chastised the Kremlin for recent provocations ranging from the Solar Winds cyberattack of federal government computers to the poisoning and jailing of opposition activist Alexei Navalny.

That exchange reveals how complex and difficult arms control talks have become in this era of renewed great power competition and rising levels of geopolitical tensions not seen since the darkest days of the Cold War. With the United States and Russia in holding about 90 percent of nuclear warheads in the world, and conducting aggressive modernization of their nuclear arsenals with advanced technology, the future of humanity itself depends on the successful management of such escalating tensions and limiting the new threat posed by these ultimate weapons.

This nascent arms race heats at a time when the edifice of mechanisms that kept Cold War dangers in check is on the verge of collapse. The last two decades have witnessed the rejections or terminations, for instance, of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the Open Skies Treaty.


So little wonder the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has reset its doomsday clock to only 100 seconds to midnight, the closest ever to armageddon. Adding to these dangers is the division and distrust in Washington. The current generation of lawmakers carries little memory of the sustained bipartisan efforts that were needed to build the foundation of strategic stability that kept the Cold War dormant for several decades. Congress now plays a critical role in rekindling that bipartisan spirit of consensus and shaping our nuclear weapons policy to keep us safe.

This role goes beyond Senate authority to simply ratify or reject treaties. With panels like the subcommittees on strategic forces, Congress holds the oversight functions to ensure the administration has a coherent and defensible policy for both the modernization of strategic nuclear forces and to reach important arms control goals. Congress also plays a role in educating the public with hearings and establishing the constituency in nuclear weapons policy to achieve stability for the future.

Lawmakers who seek to positively reassert the authorities with Congress have plenty of historical precedent to guide them, starting with the Arms Control Observer Group formed in the 1980s to support key arms control negotiations led by Ronald Reagan with the Soviet Union. It reinforced a consensus that strategic arms control will advance our interests and also led to ratification of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty along with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, both of which put brakes on a runaway arms race and passed with bipartisan majorities for the Senate. The reduced tensions and trust development that flowed from the arms control talks were critical factors in ending the Cold War.

With a welcome decision to extend the New Start Treaty for the maximum five years and use it as a foundation to pursue new arms control deals, the administration took the first step. So Congress has to revive the bipartisan spirit with the Arms Control Observer Group of the 1980s, the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program of the 1990s, and the original National Security Working Group of the 2000s, all of which fostered action in Congress and with the executive branch on national security issues. We have each taken part in positive bipartisan efforts on national security in Congress, and we believe in the potential to break across the current climate.

Over the last year, our institution has convened figures from those earlier arms control efforts, as well as experts in current relations with Russia, to apply lessons learned and gather vital insights for our leaders to navigate the perilous era. There is a general consensus that America confronts the worst global tensions since early in the Cold War when escalating events such as the Berlin Blockade, Korean War, and Cuban Missile Crisis fueled major powers to the brinks. The challenge that will define this generation of political leaders is to prevent such cataclysms and work together with bipartisan efforts to bring this country and our world toward sustainable strategic stability. The future of humanity depends on this.

Mike Rogers is a former Republican representative Congress who was a chair of the House Intelligence Committee. He is now the David Abshire chair at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Glenn Nye is a former Democratic representative in Congress. He is now chief executive with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.