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Killing New START Is Crazy

Feigning concern about a much smaller Chinese arsenal while letting the major treaty that limits Russia's arsenal lapse is unfathomably dumb.

Pompeo just reconfirmed that the Trump administration is going to let New START die:

So with that – with that as the central core principle, we – the President has spoken deeply about how the world has changed since New START was originally created. We now have an expanded threat from the Chinese Communist Party. The President’s made clear that any time we begin to have a conversation about how to create a strategic – a strategic structure that secures America, it’s no longer the case that it can only be the United States and Russia. And so we will – we will work to make sure that as we move these conversations forward, these dialogues about what’s the right way to ensure American national security, whether that’s in arms control or, frankly, for that matter, in any other space, we will have the protection of the American people and the stability for the free peoples of the world foremost front and center in how we think about that problem set.

China has a small fraction of the number of nuclear weapons that the U.S. and Russia have, and Beijing has been adamant that they have no intention of joining an arms control treaty with the other two. The New START restrictions limit the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. China only has a few hundred. Feigning concern about a much smaller Chinese arsenal while letting the major treaty that limits Russia’s arsenal lapse is unfathomably dumb. Every administration for the last thirty years has worked with their Soviet and Russian counterparts to reduce the size of our countries’ nuclear arsenals, and the U.S. and Russia have made great strides on this front. This administration will be the first to cast aside every remaining arms control treaty without regard for the consequences.

Pointing to China as a reason not to extend New START is nothing more than a lame excuse for killing the treaty, and it doesn’t even make sense on Pompeo’s own terms. New START negotiations concluded in 2009, and the treaty was ratified in 2010. The world has not changed so much in ten years that the U.S. should be willing to throw away its most significant arms control agreement. An “expanded threat” from China may or may not exist in some sense, but it has nothing to do with the merits of keeping New START. Vipin Narang comments on Pompeo’s statement:

Both parties to New START have complied with the treaty’s requirements. Complaining that the current treaty doesn’t cover all types of Russian nuclear weapons is silly, since allowing the treaty to expire will mean that no Russian nuclear weapons will be limited by any agreement. Pranay Vaddi, Nicholas Blanchette, and Garrett Hinck addressed this earlier this year:

Letting New START expire is a surefire way to leave Russia’s most threatening long-range nuclear weapons unconstrained, while failing to set any limits on other Russian weapons either.

The treaty’s verification measures provide the U.S. extremely valuable information about Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and when the treaty goes away our access to all of that disappears. Vaddi, Blanchette, and Hinck explain why that matters:

If New START expires, it would be difficult—if not impossible—for the U.S. intelligence community to compensate for the loss of insight that U.S. inspectors now have into Russian nuclear weapons bases and storage facilities, and the resulting up-to-date information on the whereabouts of Russian nuclear weapons.

Letting New START die means giving up all of the advantages that the U.S. gains from the treaty while getting nothing else. It is a huge loss for the U.S., and it is going to happen for no good reason.

The U.S. and Russia ought to have been working on additional arms control agreements that could have built on the success of New START, but between Trump’s antipathy to arms control and to anything related to Obama and the general anti-Russian hysteria over the last few years there has been absolutely no interest on the U.S. side in doing this. Now New START is running dangerously short on time, and all indications are that it will be gone in a little over a year. Once New START is gone, it will be the first time in more than forty years that there is no major arms control agreement between the U.S. and Russia. The world will be less stable and the U.S. will be less secure as a result.