Home/Daniel Larison/The Folly of Killing New START

The Folly of Killing New START

New START is the last major arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, and the Trump administration is going to let it die:

New Start expires in February 2021, just weeks after the next presidential inauguration in Washington. While it can be extended for five years by mutual agreement, President Trump and his aides have signaled repeatedly that he intends to let it expire unless it can be broadened to include other nations with strategic weapons, chiefly China.

But the Chinese are not interested — their arsenal is far smaller and they have shown no interest in negotiating a nuclear weapons deal. Mr. Trump’s insistence on including other nations, including China, in a renegotiation has largely been seen as a move to kill the treaty, which was negotiated by President Obama.

President Vladimir V. Putin’s government has said that Russia hopes to renew or revise the treaty — but that the negotiations to revise it would have to begin immediately.

The Trump administration is more openly hostile to arms control agreements than any of its predecessors, and it is the first to go out of its way to dismantle the existing arms control architecture of treaties. First Trump quit the INF Treaty, which gave Russia a free pass for its violations, and then he has signaled his intention to abandon the Open Skies Treaty. Both of these treaties have been valuable, stabilizing agreements that serve U.S. and allied interests, but the president has been persuaded by Bolton and his allies to toss them in the garbage. New START is arguably the most important of the three, and it also appears to be doomed because of this same reflexive hostility to arms control. When New START expires, the last remaining restrictions on the size and deployment of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals will vanish, and there will be nothing to replace them for a long time to come. Letting New START expire is purely destructive, and it puts the U.S. and Russia back on a path to a costly and unnecessary arms race. For the first time in half a century, there will be no arms control agreements left, and the world will be less secure and stable as a result.

The administration feigns interest in a “broader” treaty that is also completely impossible. It is so unrealistic that everyone recognizes this as a transparent ploy to kill New START. This is similar to their feigned interest in a “better” nuclear deal with Iran. There is no “better” deal to be had, and hard-liners would never tolerate anything short of capitulation anyway. Hard-liners frequently pretend to be in favor of “better” agreements as a way to conceal their desire to wreck existing ones.

China refuses to be part of such a treaty, and the disparity in size between their relatively small arsenal and the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia is so great that it makes no sense to include them. These treaties have always been bilateral treaties between Washington and Moscow because our two governments have the two largest arsenals by far, and as long as those arsenals remain the largest in the world it is appropriate that the main arms reduction treaties are limited to the U.S. and Russia. The U.S. has benefited from treaties like this one for decades, and once they are all gone the U.S. will have lost access to all of the knowledge that it gains through the verification inspections. The U.S.-Russian relationship will be in even worse shape, and the dangers of a deteriorating U.S.-Russian relationship will have increased substantially.

When New START dies, it will be solely because of the Trump administration’s opposition to it. There are no Russian violations to hide behind, and no legitimate reason not to extend the treaty. Refusing to renew the treaty is the same as killing it, and the U.S. will be to blame for the collapse of the last limits on the biggest nuclear arsenals on earth.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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