The two most formidable nuclear powers on earth, which possess over 90 percent of the world’s deadliest weapons, stand on the brink of abandoning six decades of arms control agreements and accelerating the creation of new and more terrifying doomsday weapons.
In commemorating last month the seventy-fifth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, the editorial board of the New York Times reminded the country of this sobering reality: the United States and Russia, each “capable of vaporizing the human race in an apocalyptic flash, ” are hurtling toward future military confrontations. That same week, over a hundred leading foreign policy experts ominously warned us: “we are at a dangerous dead-end [in our policies with Russia] . . .[and are now] drifting toward a fraught nuclear arms race.”
Yet, both major political parties downplay, and hardly prioritize, the importance of avoiding this catastrophic collision course with Russia. The Democratic platform acknowledged that “the nuclear dangers that Americans face are greater than they have been in decades”—but no alarm bell sounded. Nor did President Donald Trump or Presidential-candidate Joe Biden even mention this perilous state of the nation in their nomination acceptance speeches; nor did either of them describe how such pressing national security issues should be handled if elected in November.
The progress achieved over the past sixty years on arms control has now come to a crippling halt. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, we witnessed a slow, but steady, path forward. In announcing the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, President John F. Kennedy eloquently declared the treaty as the first step “to escape from the darkening prospect of mass destruction on earth. . . a shaft of light cut into the darkness.”
A decade later, President Richard Nixon led the way in reducing nuclear arsenals through the historic Strategic Arms Limitations Talks agreement. After President Ronald Reagan’s groundbreaking meetings with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva and Reykjavik, a momentous Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (“INF”) treaty was signed in 1987 to eliminate intermediate and shorter-range missiles. During the twenty-five years that followed, the first Bush, Clinton, second Bush, and Obama administrations negotiated a series of treaties and agreements which imposed further and very substantial limitations on both countries’ nuclear arsenals.
In an insightful historical overview, former Secretary of Defense William Perry reflected in My Journey at the Nuclear Brink that arms control reached a high point in April 2009, when President Donald Obama’s long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review first “explicitly diminished the role of nuclear weapons in American military strategy.” The December 2010 ratification of the New START treaty followed, with Senate approval by a seventy-one to twenty-six bipartisan vote, a surprising result to Perry in view of the opposition to the treaty by the Republican leadership at that time.
The decade that ensued, however, has been deeply discouraging as a “counter wave of events [then] began to unfold.” Progress “on diminishing the nuclear dangers started to stall out and even reverse” in 2011, when “the United States and Russia began a long backward slide,” capped off by the “disastrous turn of events” when Russian-backed forces invaded eastern Ukraine and Russia annexed Crimea. Russia soon disavowed a long-standing commitment to “no first use” of nuclear weapons, announcing that it was ready to launch nuclear weapons in response to any perceived threat—even by conventional means.
Since 2015, the situation has sunk to an even lower depth. In January 2015, the events in Ukraine and elsewhere led the prestigious Union of Atomic Scientists to reset its Doomsday Clock to three minutes to midnight. (It read five minutes to midnight a year earlier). Destabilizing developments cascaded each successive year, with the summer of 2019 witnessing perhaps the most dramatic retreat to date: withdrawal by the United States from the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, which had eliminated an entire class of weapons and destroyed 2,692 missiles.
In January 2020, the three-minute margin to oblivion on the Doomsday Clock was reduced nearly in half—to a precariously unstable one hundred seconds. These prominent scientists, who include 13 Nobel Laureates, have informed us that America now confronts: “the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced.”
There can be no question that the paramount objective for U.S. foreign policy must be restoring arms control to a central place on the nation’s agenda. It will necessitate that the candidate who prevails in the November election educates and informs the American public what is truly at stake, and gives the highest priority to preventing the country from drifting further into the abyss. The arsenals of both Russia and the United States are on a potentially calamitous escalation in destructive power and capability. At the same time, both countries are losing all credibility to persuade other countries to refrain from developing or expanding their own nuclear arsenals. The hypocrisy is self-evident.
Several Helpful Proposals
1. The first, and most immediate, step is for the next Presidential Administration to extend – without seeking new conditions—the New START treaty which expires on February 5, 2021. This critical agreement limits each side to 1550 strategic nuclear weapon warheads deployed on 700 strategic delivery systems, figures that were 30 percent and 50 percent, respectively, lower than those set forth in previous agreements. As emphasized by the Federation of American Scientists: “If the treaty expires, there will be no constraints on US or Russian strategic arsenals for the first time since 1972.”
This would constitute a half-century—and likely irreparable—setback in arms control to the pre‑Nixon years of unconstrained build-ups.
2. Second, the next presidential administration should form a high-level task force that includes diplomats and defense department officials—which is bipartisan in composition—to recommend arms control measures to put our nation back on the course that Reagan and Gorbachev launched in 1987, and Nixon before them. This should be afforded the highest priority for the summit agenda discussed below. This undertaking will require input from experts in both the private and public sectors and months of planning in a highly technical and complex area.
3. Third, a new presidential administration must evidence a serious commitment to resolving the core issues which have led to the current arms control impasse. High on this list is addressing the political standoff created by Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea and its continuing military initiatives in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region. Years ago, experts developed a three-step strategy for how to resolve, or at least contain, the Ukrainian and Crimean crisis. Perhaps (a) Russia and the West continue to “agree to disagree” for the indefinite future on the diplomatic status of Crimea; (b) an effective cease-fire be declared in Donbas; and (c) a multi-billion-dollar aid package be assembled for economic recovery in Ukraine. Unless a peaceful resolution can be achieved—or at least until we begin to discuss a way for Russia to extricate itself from this quagmire—the stalemate in Ukraine will continue to present high barriers to renewing arms control negotiations.
4. Fourth, Western sanctions on Russia should be lifted in a manner calibrated to restoring peace in Ukraine. These sanctions have clearly inflicted economic damage on Russia. The precise amount is difficult to calculate—but it is believed to be in the range of 1.0–1.5 percent of Russia’s foregone GDP growth.
The punishment meted out to 690 identified individuals, and the effects thereof, are more difficult to assess.
5. Fifth, diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia should be restored to normalcy as soon as possible, with embassy staffing increased to pre-crisis levels and consulates reopened. Continuation of the status quo is simply counterproductive at this point in time.
6. Sixth, the new presidential administration must embrace Mikhail Gorbachev’s entreaty that our leaders “return to sanity” and initiate a “full-scale summit on the entire range of issues” between our nations.
Before the end of 2021, a two-phase summit should be scheduled, initially set in Moscow, and continuing in Washington. (A pre-summit meeting should also be considered.) Extensive preparations and negotiations will require senior officials on both sides to lay the groundwork. In Gorbachev’s earlier plea for a summit, he emphasized that when “[r]elations between the two nations are in a severe crisis . . . there is one well tested means available for accomplishing a [way out]”—that is, to initiate “a dialogue based on mutual respect.”
7. Finally, this summit should serve as a forum for announcing new economic and trust-building overtures. It must be remembered that Nixon’s first foray into arms control was accompanied by the trade agreement of 1972 to provide a legal foundation for commercial relations with Russia and to serve as a supporting linkage to the overall initiative. Possible areas of collaboration include (i) joint development of a new Arctic trade route; (ii) joint development of alternative energy sources to reduce environmental degradation; (iii) undertaking serious and well funded U.S.-Russia health care projects, including in Russia’s provinces and in U.S. rural areas; (iv) new student and academic exchange programs; (v) joint space exploration; and (vi) reinvigorating U.S.-Russia trade and business organization.