Risk of Failure to Extend the New START Treaty

June 27, 2020 | By eric.terzuolo | Filed in: Arms Control, Diplomacy.

New START Extension Unlikely

Failure to extend the New START treaty is likely. It is the last US/Russian arms control agreement that limits nuclear weapons for both sides and will expire on February 5 of next year, a few days after the US presidential inauguration. The treaty, however, allows a negotiated extension for up to five years. 

It’s hard to be optimistic, though, about an extension, due in part to US arms control buffoonery. US/Russia talks on June 22 admittedly could have gone worse. The two sides agreed to continue working, and to meet again later this summer. But the US ultimately may take the responsibility for failure to extend the New START treaty.

US Arms Control Ineptitude

The Administration already shot itself in the foot in August of last year by withdrawing from, and thereby killing, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. Russia quite clearly had violated the treaty. But do you really deal with rule violations by eliminating the rules?  Looked like a win for the violator.

Russian President Putin has cleverly set up the US to take the blame for a failure to extend the New START treaty. The Trump Administration regards Russian support for the treaty as by definition suspect. As usual, zero-sum thinking prevails, although the treaty genuinely does serve US interests.

The Administration’s evident deal breaker of choice is its insistence on bringing China into the treaty. This is nonsense. It’s actually hard to disagree with the PRC leadership when they remind us that New START is a bilateral treaty between two nuclear powers with similarly large strategic arsenals and similar nuclear doctrines. China is not a comparable nuclear power.

The Administration’s approach to China in this case is customarily inept. No surprise that Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea cut his teeth as a staffer for the late Senator Jesse Helms, the “Grim Reaper” of arms control on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

And Outright Buffoonery

What did Billingslea hope to gain by posting a photo of empty seats with Chinese flags at what everyone knew was going to be a US/Russian bilateral meeting. It’s just plain dumb to insult a great power as a “no-show” when they never agreed to participate in the meeting or saw any interest in doing so. The director for arms control at the PRC foreign ministry responded to Billingslea by asking rhetorically: “How low can you go?” Not much progress toward bringing China into the negotiation, I’d say.

This arms control buffoonery was presumably intended for a US domestic audience. But it was never likely to impress Beijing (or Moscow, for that matter). Could it have been a back-handed effort to get them to walk away? It seems unlikely, though, that Washington will be able to put the blame on anyone else’s shoulders for a failure to extend New START. Just another sad example of the crisis of competence roiling the US government. 

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One comment on “Risk of Failure to Extend the New START Treaty

  1. John Evans says:

    Good snapshot of the situation in strategic arms control.

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