Marshall Billingslea, currently the US special presidential envoy for arms control, faces the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday in a bid to add the top arms control job at the State Department to his resume. His confirmation hearing is sure to be contentious — and rightly so.
Committee members must not miss this opportunity to press Billingslea on the Trump administration’s shambolic and dangerous approach to nuclear arms control, which thus far has yielded no results apart from the demise of longstanding agreements, much to the frustration of US allies and the detriment of US security.
Billingslea, who took up the special envoy post in mid-April and was nominated for undersecretary of state for arms control and international security on May 1, was a controversial figure before taking over the arms control file.
In 2019, Trump nominated Billingslea for the top human rights post at the State Department, but his nomination stalled earlier this year amid bipartisan concerns about his role while serving in the Pentagon from 2002 to 2003 during the George W. Bush administration in promoting enhanced interrogation techniques that Congress later banned as torture. Senators accused Billingslea of whitewashing his advocacy for torture, not providing requested documents, and declining to respond to questions from senators for the record.
Billingslea’s embrace of torture should disqualify him from further government service. His record on arms control, both before and since joining the Trump administration, is also cause for great concern.
Billingslea was formerly an adviser to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), an ardent opponent of arms control who opposed US ratification of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
The Trump administration’s ineffective, maximalist arms control policy predates Billingslea’s arrival as special envoy. For months, the Trump administration had balked at Russia’s offer to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in favor of seeking a broader arms control agreement that would cover all Russian nuclear weapons and also include China.
New START is the only remaining arms control agreement regulating the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. The treaty caps the US and Russian deployed strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers. The pact allows for a five-year extension until 2026 so long as the presidents of both countries agree.
When Billingslea entered the picture in April, negotiations on a new agreement had not started nor had the Trump administration put forward a concrete negotiating proposal. And China, which has a far smaller nuclear arsenal than the United States and Russia, had repeatedly refused to join trilateral talks.
Even if the administration had a realistic plan, it has long been clear that there simply isn’t enough time to make real progress on, let alone negotiate, a new agreement before New START expires next February.
Billingslea’s approach to date as special envoy has put the goal of a more ambitious agreement even further out of reach and made it increasingly difficult to escape the conclusion that the administration’s pursuit of trilateral arms control is a smokescreen to run out the clock on New START and lay the blame at the feet of Russia and China.
Instead of seriously engaging Russia and China on achievable near-term steps to reduce nuclear risks, Billingslea has instead resorted to wild threats of spending Moscow and Beijing into oblivion and petty insults in an attempt to coerce and embarrass the two countries to the table.
Prior to the start of talks with Russia on arms control in Vienna on June 22, Billingslea tweeted a picture of the table, with some empty seats reserved with (inaccurately designed) Chinese flags. “Vienna talks about to start,” Billingslea said. “China is a no-show…We will proceed with Russia, notwithstanding.” The stunt was roundly criticized as unserious and unprofessional.
On New START, Billingslea said after the Vienna talks that the administration is “willing to contemplate an extension of that agreement but only under select circumstances.” Those circumstances include making progress toward a new trilateral arms control agreement that has strong verification measures, covers all nuclear warheads, and involves China, according to Billingslea.
New START’s extensive monitoring and verification regime provides essential real-time insights directly into Russian strategic forces and modernization programs that are greatly valued by our military and intelligence community. Billingslea’s dredging up of debunked attacks against this regime does not change that fact. Allowing the treaty to die would deprive us of a vital flow of information about Russia’s strategic forces that cannot be obtained via other means.
The administration’s pursuit of a broader arms control agreement with Russia and China is a laudable goal, but not if that pursuit comes at the expense of or as a condition for extending New START. Bringing all types of nuclear weapons and other nuclear actors into the arms control process would be unprecedented, complex, time-consuming. A bigger deal would also require significant concessions from Washington. Extending New START by five years is a necessary step for progress on such a new deal.
Talks on regulating non-strategic and non-deployed nuclear weapons are long-overdue, but New START was designed to focus on limiting Russian strategic nuclear weapons that can directly threaten the US homeland. Extending New START would buy five additional years with which to engage in negotiations with Russia to attempt to capture US and Russian weapons and technologies not limited by the treaty while retaining limits on Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.
As for China, it cannot permanently sit on the arms control sidelines given the scope and pace of its nuclear advancements. But China has a much smaller nuclear arsenal than the United States and Russia, and the current threat posed by its strategic forces is less urgent than that of Russia. The folly of throwing away New START’s limits on and transparency about Russia’s more dangerous arsenal due to concerns about China can’t be overstated.
Billingslea has suggested that the prospect of a less than five-year extension of New START could leverage Russia and possibly China to the negotiating table. But there is no evidence that the administration’s refusal to date to extend the treaty has produced any meaningful leverage or that dangling a short-term extension would convince Russia or China to agree to US terms for talks. Moreover, assuming Moscow would even agree to multiple short-term extensions totaling less than five years, preparing and posturing for such extensions would distract from the broader talks the administration says it seeks.
Instead of seriously engaging Russia and China on achievable near-term steps to reduce nuclear risks, Billingslea has instead resorted to wild threats of spending Moscow and Beijing into oblivion and petty insults in an attempt to coerce and embarrass the two countries to the table. Needless to say, such an approach has zero chance of success.
Meanwhile, US allies have repeatedly and unequivocally communicated their support for New START extension. Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), said on June 23 that “In the absence of any agreement which includes China, I think the right thing will be to extend the existing New START agreement to provide the necessary time to find agreement” on a bigger deal.
Ultimately, “we should not end up in a situation where we have no agreement whatsoever regulating the number of nuclear weapons in the world,” said Stoltenberg.
Billingslea frequently cherry-picks statements from allies urging China to get off the arms control sidelines without noting that those same allies strongly support extending New START.
When Billingslea faces the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, he will do so knowing that a bipartisan majority of members support a five-year extension of New START. Committee members should hold Billingslea to account for the administration’s illogical and destructive arms control behavior and highlight the many ways in which the administration’s pursuit of a new era of trilateral arms control is consistent with a five-year extension.
Questions senators should ask include:
Realistically, is there sufficient time remaining for the negotiation, ratification, and entry into force of a new arms control agreement before New START expires on February 5, 2021?
NATO allies support a five-year extension of New START. Has the administration addressed their growing concerns about the administration’s continued indecision about whether to extend the treaty?
After the June 22 talks with Russia in Vienna, the United States conditioned an extension of New START on progress towards a new trilateral deal. How does the administration plan to measure progress? What will qualify as sufficient progress to allow for the five-year extension of New START?
How does the United States plan to convince Beijing to come to the negotiating table with the United States and Russia? What concessions is Washington willing to offer in return for greater transparency about or limits on China’s nuclear forces?
If New START does expire with nothing to replace it, how would letting the treaty expire increase our leverage for future arms control talks with Russia? Is there a risk that Moscow might blame the United States for the expiration of the treaty and also try to use New START’s expiration as leverage in future talks against us?
If his past behavior is precedent, committee members are unlikely to be pleased with his answers. The majority of committee members understand that extending New START by five years is a no-brainer and failing to do so would be foreign policy malpractice.
Kingston Reif is the director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association. Shannon Bugos is a research assistant at the Arms Control Association.