For more than 50 years, the United States and Russia have agreed that their own security required negotiating agreements limiting their nuclear weapons deployments and capabilities. In that time, the two countries have successfully concluded seven major agreements to reduce their nuclear arsenals. The last of these, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, was signed in 2010 and capped each side’s deployed warheads at 1,550.
Yet, the nuclear arms control edifice that was built up over half a century is in danger of coming apart. The Trump administration has decided to withdraw from one major agreement, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, citing Russian violations. And it has shown no interest in extending New START before it expires 18 months from now.
Behind both decisions is the idea that U.S.-Russian arms control has become an anachronism, and that future arms control efforts must now also include Chinese capabilities. While Russia’s apparent deployment of a banned ground-based nuclear missile provided the formal reason for abandoning the INF Treaty, President Donald Trump also cited China’s unconstrained deployment of intermediate-range missiles as a justification for ending the agreement. And rather than extending New START for five years, administration officials suggest that any future accord must also limit Chinese nuclear weapons.
After more than 50 years of U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations and agreements, there is scope for thinking anew about how best to reduce nuclear dangers. But abandoning long-standing agreements and conditioning any new negotiations on including China are not the best way to do that.
It took the United States and Soviet Union standing at the very brink of nuclear war, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, to understand the importance of managing their nuclear capabilities through negotiations.
After the crisis, both countries instituted a hotline so they could communicate to avert misunderstandings. They agreed to ban above-ground nuclear testing and negotiated a treaty to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. And they began the effort to limit and ultimately reduce the number and type of weapons each side could deploy. As important, both accepted intrusive inspection regimes designed not only to verify compliance with the terms of the agreements but to enhance mutual confidence that neither side was seeking a decisive nuclear advantage.
The true lesson of the Cuban missile crisis was that countries could miscalculate each other’s actions and intentions, raising the very real risk of nuclear confrontation. The commitment to dialogue, to engage in extensive talks on strategic stability and negotiate real limits on capabilities, and to open each country up to foreign inspectors, helped create confidence that for all the differences between them, the United States and Russia shared an overriding need to avoid a nuclear war.
That effort has proven exceedingly successful. Nuclear arsenals, though still far too large, have been sharply reduced. Nuclear crises like Cuba have been avoided. And while there have been questions about compliance, none of the violations ever constituted a threat so dire as to heighten the risk of nuclear confrontation.
U.S.-Russian arms control has worked in its most fundamental aim — to reduce the chance of war, especially nuclear war. That is why the decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty next month is a mistake. The new Russian missile deployment is a violation and has to be addressed, and the treaty contains procedures for doing so. If the violation persists, there are ways to punish Russia, through sanctions and other means. But withdrawing from a treaty that has served the United States and its European allies well for decades risks an arms race that is destabilizing and unwinnable.
The same is true for New START. Russia has indicated it is willing to extend its terms for five years. The United States has nothing to lose by agreeing to its extension, thus limiting Russian nuclear deployments and extending the highly intrusive inspection measures that provide real insight into Russian capabilities.
There is a case to be made for including China in future nuclear negotiations, though its nuclear deployments of some 200 weapons is but a small fraction of what the United States and Russia still possess. Russia, moreover, will no doubt also insist on including the similarly-sized French and British nuclear forces in such a multilateral negotiation, a prospect that neither Paris nor London is likely to welcome.
It will no doubt take time, and real effort, to decide on a new negotiating framework beyond the two major nuclear powers. Until such time, both Washington and Moscow will be much better off if the nuclear framework they have developed over the past 50 years remains in place.
Ivo Daalder is the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.