Can the future of arms control be found in its past?
Efforts to limit naval power between the world wars offer lessons for today's nuclear negotiators
As one of its very first acts in the realm of national security affairs, the Biden Administration extended the New START Treaty of 2010, which was set to expire on February 5, 2021. The unconditional extension of the treaty for five years was agreed with the government of the Russian Federation despite earlier calls by some experts, including the current Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, for a shorter extension conditioned on Russia engaging in good faith negotiations on future arms control measures, including those covering those elements of its nuclear forces not covered by the Treaty like so-called non-strategic nuclear weapons and some of the new exotic nuclear weapons that President Putin has announced in recent years. As Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has noted, “President Biden agreed to Russian requests for a full five-year extension of the New START Treaty, no strings attached. He gave it up for free, undermining our leverage to extract concessions in future negotiations.”
How ought one think about arms control as we move from a strategic era dominated by concerns about terrorism and counterinsurgency to one in which the focus of national security affairs is once again great power competition?
Nonetheless, the sigh of relief from advocates of arms control after the New START Treaty renewal was audible. In the wake of the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) of 1988 and the Open Skies Treaty of 1992 there was a great deal of fear that the New START Treaty which one scholar has called “the key bilateral arms control agreement” would expire. Now that the keystone of the arms control enterprise remains in place it is worth examining why so many arms control experts and advocates have been warning about “the end,” “the death” or the “deep crisis” of arms control. As one leading Russian scholar of arms control has argued, “legacy Cold War-era arms control is collapsing and an uncontrolled nuclear arms race is threatening to return.”
What has produced that outpouring of concern? And how ought one think about arms control as we move from a strategic era dominated by concerns about terrorism and counterinsurgency to one in which the focus of national security affairs is once again great power competition?