Diplomatic Posturing

Diplomatic posturing on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, and new strategic arms reductions waxes as prospects for progress wane. Progress requires lubrication for friction between Russia and the United States, China and the United States, China and India, India and Pakistan, and Pakistan and the United States. Friction between the nuclear “haves” and the “have nots” is also growing, along with the distance between proposed ends and means. Gridlock has prompted calls for a Nuclear Ban Treaty.

Diplomatic posturing doesn’t need to withstand scrutiny; it only needs to block consensus or put somebody else on the defensive. A small sampler: China, whose non-proliferation credentials are less than stellar, provisionally demands that India join the Non-Proliferation Treaty before entering the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Pakistan, whose nuclear stockpile is growing faster than China’s or India’s, demands an all-encompassing treaty covering all fissile material stocks while blocking negotiations on a treaty barring new production. Worrisome military space programs are the biggest reason for a code of responsible behavior in space, but Non-Aligned Movement states don’t want to talk about this, focusing instead on civil and commercial uses of space. Egypt champions regional and global disarmament while making a hash of NPT Review Conferences. And Russia asserts that the next tranche of strategic arms reduction be multilateral, rather than bilateral.

The difference between the strategic offensive nuclear forces of the United States and the Russian Federation and states with three-digit-sized nuclear arsenals is quite substantial. There is no evidence that second-tier states intend to catch up to the first tier. So why make the next tranche of reductions harder by involving third parties? The wisest way to reduce is the least complicated way. And the least complicated path forward for the next decade would be for Washington and Moscow to reduce excess force structure, save money, and extend the 2010 Strategic Offensive Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) until 2026.

Instead, Russia would like to rope in China, which China has long opposed until the United States and Russia reduce to its own level, which remains opaque. Besides, engaging China without India is inconceivable. Engaging India without Pakistan is a non-starter. And if states with three-digit-sized arsenals are to be included, that means France, too. Good luck with that. How about Great Britain? And why not Israel?

Russia’s diplomatic posture to shift from bilateral to multilateral strategic arms reductions at this tenuous stage can’t be taken seriously. Moscow has greater emotional attachment to conditioning the next tranche of strategic arms reductions to limitations on U.S. missile defenses and advanced conventional strike capabilities.

I understand these concerns, but they won’t be addressed under New START. Absent the ABM Treaty, U.S. missile defense programs will be sized according to threat perceptions as well as technical and budgetary limitations. Moscow and Beijing are modernizing nuclear capabilities to assure penetration of U.S. missile defenses. We’ve been here before, and the takeaway is clear: missile defenses are best constrained by threat reduction, rather than threat inflation. As for advanced conventional strike capabilities, they won’t be bounded by treaty because they have military utility – unlike nuclear weapons.

Issues that are germane to New START but beyond its scope will either fall away or result in the end of treaty-based strategic arms reductions. If Moscow holds firm to its many conditions for further reductions, then so be it: after a period of wrangling, START will stop. There are, however, compelling reasons for another tranche of U.S.-Russian strategic arms reductions. One that is rarely considered is that further reductions under START can provide a decade’s worth of time to engage states with three-digit-sized arsenals on their responsibilities to reduce nuclear dangers. These conversations will be much harder to have if START stops.

Domestic constituencies in United States are also likely to take issue with extending New START and agreeing to deeper cuts without addressing issues that lie outside the scope of this treaty – especially the situation in Ukraine. But if either side demands formal satisfaction on issues that have not been amenable to resolution for many years – and in some cases many decades – START will not be extended and further treaty-based reductions would go by the wayside.

Diplomatic posturing aside, the key to progress on further reductions at this stage isn’t missile defenses, advanced conventional capabilities, or bringing third parties into strategic arms negotiations. It’s whether Washington and Moscow can quietly agree on a modus vivendi for activities around Russia’s periphery.

The article was originally published on Arms Control Wonk