“New START is unilateral disarmament,” thundered John Bolton in The Wall Street Journal in September 2010 as the Senate debated this modest nuclear reduction agreement.
Bolton provided the talking points for the treaty’s opponents. If we agreed to mutually limit our long-range, deployed nuclear weapons to 1550 on each side and 700 launchers, it would “cripple America’s long-range conventional warhead delivery capabilities, while also severely constraining our nuclear flexibility.”
None of this was true. Ten years later, we are fine, thank you. The military has scores of ways to deliver conventional bombs. We still have enough nuclear weapons “to make the rubble bounce,” as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara once said. No one feels less safe because of these limits, indeed, we are safer for the reductions.
They are part of the steady build down of nuclear forces begun by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 with his Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. For the first time in the nuclear age, America and Russia agreed to cut, rather than just limit, their arsenals. The two nuclear superpowers followed up with the original START treaty that cut long-range weapons to 6,000 each, then the SORT treaty negotiated by President George W. Bush that brought them down to 1,700 to 2,200 each.
Hard-line conservatives opposed these cuts. Why? Maximum flexibility. Maximum options. An ideology that believes arms control provides only the “illusion of security.” American military might should protect the nation, they say, not “pieces of paper.” Some, like Bolton, reject all such accords as attempts by the global Lilliputians to tie down the American Gulliver.
There were always these voices in the nuclear age, always a fringe that saw agreements with rivals as akin to treason, but previously they were the minority in the Republican Party. Now the moderates are gone and the nuclear Neanderthals dominate in Congress and on conservative airwaves. They are mounting a furious effort to kill the New START treaty.
You can see the game here. Pretend to be for an agreement, but demand that we perform the twelve labors of Hercules before we can possibly agree to any extension.
Like most arms control agreements, this one has an expiration date. It will end in February 2021 unless the two presidents agree to extend it. “Why should we extend a flawed treaty?” says Bolton. Younger analysts on the right, like Tim Morrison and Micheala Dodge, echo his line. They shower us with a flurry of “flaws.” The treaty doesn’t cover Russian short-range weapons, even though it was never designed to do so. We should include China, even though that nation has only 80 long-range nuclear weapons.
These are valid arms control goals. We should cut all kinds of weapons. We should include all nuclear-armed nations in control regimes. But neither they nor anyone in the Trump administration has any plans to actually do so.
“A treaty covering so-called nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapons will be complex and take time,” said the editors of The Washington Post on December 9. “Is Mr. Trump actively and seriously preparing for negotiations? There is no sign of it.” Similarly, they said, “There is no evidence Mr. Trump has made any serious effort to talk to China about nuclear weapons reductions.” Nor has anyone in the Trump administration “engaged Moscow in any serious negotiations toward an extension.”
You can see the game here. Pretend to be for an agreement, but demand that we perform the twelve labors of Hercules before we can possibly agree to any extension. And then not do any labor at all.
Fortunately, the US military is in favor of extending the treaty. They want the inspections that give us eyes on all of Russia’s strategic forces. They want the predictability of the treaty for force planning and budget projections. They don’t want the expense of an unlimited arms race that would divert funds to redundant nuclear weapons.
Fortunately, the Russian military feels the same way. That may be why Russian President Vladimir Putin said December 5 that Russia was willing to extend the treaty without any conditions. And why he dispatched Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Washington this week to talk to Trump.
If they can agree, all it takes is the signature of Trump and Putin to extend this last remaining nuclear arms treaty for another five years. Neither the Senate nor the Duma need ratify.
It is the one offer from Putin that Trump should accept. It is so simple, even a caveman could do it.
Joseph Cirincione is the president of Ploughshares Fund and the host of the podcast, Press The Button.