President Trump claims to be a deal-maker. Russian President Putin has offered him a deal that no reasonable person would turn down – the chance to ensure that the United States and Russia continue to both limit the size of their nuclear arsenals and allow an array of verification measures that allows the two countries to have confidence in what the other is doing.
New START verifiably caps U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed long-range warheads. It will expire in early 2021 unless the two presidents decide to extend it by five years. President Putin recently said he is willing to renew the accord for five years as it is, with no further negotiations. The two presidents should quickly sign on the dotted line, a sensible step that would make every American safer.
The other option is an unconstrained arms race, with both countries free to build and deploy as many nuclear weapons as they can manage. And without verification—actual boots on the ground, doing short-notice inspections of nuclear sites—to know what the other country is doing. We know where that road leads, to trillions of dollars wasted on weapons that we hope are never used but, if they are, humanity ends. It is an utterly senseless path.
President Trump and his team have proposed a third approach, but one that is not grounded in reality. While the dream of negotiating a new agreement that would include all US and Russian nuclear weapons, while also bringing China into the frame, is superficially appealing, it is at best a fool’s errand and at worst a distraction intended to justify the end to New START. The Trump team should seek such talks with Russia and China, but not sacrifice New START on that alter.
In that context, some have argued that pursuing China is pointless, that they will never agree. Indeed, as Sen. Jeff Merkley pointed in out a recent Senate hearing, the question would have to become, “Should the United States drop to China’s level, of roughly 300 nuclear weapons, or should the China go up to U.S. levels of some 1,800 deployed and 2,200 reserve nuclear weapons?”
That does seem like a non-starter. But, as my colleague Gregory Kulacki has pointed out, that doesn’t mean that China should be excused from pressure to join negotiations on its nuclear arsenal. More importantly, China should join, and then use that platform to ask Sen. Merkley’s very relevant question. If President Trump does not want to answer it, then the real problem – US and Russian bloated nuclear arsenals – becomes clear.
In the meantime, President Trump and President Putin should nail down this whole New START thing. Extending is a simple process – just two signatures on the document – that would increase American security, reassure allies, and return to some level of normalcy the chaos that has become the entire arms control agenda under the current US administration.
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