Michael KreponExtending New START for Five Years

Verse of the week:

“To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life”
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Lyrics of the week:

“Ev’ry time I look at you
I don’t understand
Why you let the things you did
Get so out of hand
You’d have managed better
If you’d had it planned”
— Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jesus Christ Superstar

“Some folks are born silver spoon in hand
Lord, don’t they help themselves,
But when the taxman come’ to the door
Lord, the house lookin’ like a rummage sale”
— John Fogerty & Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son”

In most aspects of our lives, something is better than nothing. One exception is dread diseases. Another is arms control, at least for those whose opposition is driven by ideology rather than analytical rigor. In this view, it’s better to be rid of an agreement even when Moscow doesn’t cheat because freedom of action feels more advantageous.

For those most averse to arms control, deterrence suffices, even though unencumbered deterrence is extremely dangerous and prone to breakdowns.

The Bomb is too powerful to be completely domesticated. Because states possessing the Bomb compete seriously in tense regions, we need guardrails to prevent battlefield use. Arms control provides guardrails even when it does not explicitly prohibit use. Every negotiation on every treaty provides subtext to a common understanding that nuclear weapons are a breed apart.

Arms control, like deterrence, is subject to breakdowns. Breakdowns occur when geopolitical conditions change and when national leaders decide to be rid of bothersome constraints. George W. Bush wanted to be rid of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, even though defensive technologies couldn’t catch up to offenses. In doing so, he made it extremely hard for his successor to reduce strategic offensive forces below Bush’s floor.

Vladimir Putin was intent to deploy ground-based missiles prohibited by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. His subsequent missile deployments made a hash of treaty constraints, completely justifying U.S. withdrawal. Donald Trump also withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty despite its obvious utility for U.S. security partnerships. In this case, Russian violations were trivial, easily countered and circumvented. There were no intolerable constraints to be rid of; there was only ideological opposition to a useful treaty.

In the case of New START, there are no bothersome constraints and there are no treaty violations. Donald Trump and those to whom he entrusted national security affairs have huffed and puffed about its deficiencies. They have threatened a short extension of New START unless their preferences are satisfied, notwithstanding the Treaty’s terms that the length of an extension can only be by mutual consent.

There are times when the Trump administration’s dysfunction has served useful purposes. The case of New START is among them. For more than three years, the administration did nothing to seek improved terms. When Trump’s minions finally came up with a plan, placing visionary outcomes in the hands of tear-down artists, U.S. negotiators had no leverage, plans or skills to succeed.

Trump still has the option of withdrawing from New START but doing so during the remainder of this presidential campaign would make no strategic or political sense. To announce U.S. withdrawal after the election would leave sufficient time for his successor – assuming he loses – to reverse this decision.

Moscow, like the rest of us, awaits the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. If Trump wins a second term, New START and much else will unravel. If Joe Biden wins, the Treaty will receive a life extension. A five-year extension of New START’s intrusive monitoring provisions and on-site inspections would be the most prudent choice. Biden, a prudent man, has signaled this.

It took one year of hard labor to negotiate New START, drawing on and somewhat simplifying the fine print of START I. A much more complicated agreement will take far more time. There will be more than enough pressures, domestic and foreign, for the next administration to deal with. Why add time pressure for a follow on to New START to this long list?

New START is ten years old. Much has happened, almost all of it unsettling, in the interim. When negotiations resume after the next President is sworn in, it might be possible to achieve modest reductions within the Treaty’s terms, but even partial gains will take hard work. Something better and more complicated will take imagination as well as trench warfare. This will take time.

New START can be extended for a full five years by common consent without another debilitating Senate ratification debate, as permitted by Article XIV of the Treaty. Those who argue for a shorter extension to demonstrate toughness are blowing smoke. Both Washington and Moscow can upload warheads, but what then?

Dispensing with New START’s provisions would lengthen any negotiation. Starting from scratch means renegotiating to retrieve every prior Russian concession. Short-cuts aren’t possible unless you rely on the work of those who preceded you, as was the case with John Bolton. The reason he was able to negotiate the 2003 Moscow Treaty, which was a mere three pages in length, was because he could rely on the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and its appendages for particulars. The body of this work was the approximate size of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Our fractious world is poised to have breakdowns in deterrence because none of the ongoing competitions between nuclear-armed states have guardrails in the form of arms control. India and Pakistan have a few confidence-building measures but no arms control arrangements. Ditto for the competition between China and India. Both are marked by border clashes of increased severity. The U.S.-China competition has no guardrails. And only one strategic arms control treaty remains between the United States and Russia. A five-year extension of the guardrails and inspections that New START provides should be a no brainer, but awaits the outcome of the U.S. election.

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