A 2011 agreement known as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or New START is the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia. The treaty imposes limits on the size and composition of the nuclear arsenals of the world’s two largest nuclear powers and it allows Russia and the United States to inspect each other’s nuclear arsenals to ensure compliance. New START is now the only nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia because last year, the Trump administration withdrew from a Ronald Reagan era agreement called the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, that eliminated a certain class of nuclear weapons. But New START may not last much longer. The treaty officially expires in February, 2021 — less than a year from now. And so far it is unclear whether or not the Trump administration will seek its extension. Russia has already signaled that it would extend the agreement another five years, but so far the Trump administration has demurred.
On the line with me to discuss the significance of New START is Thomas Countryman. He was a long time career diplomat who served as the U S Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-proliferation from 2011 to 2017. He is now the chair of the board of the arms control association. In this conversation, he explains what New START achieves and why abandoning it could lead to a new nuclear arms race. We kick off putting New START into the history and context of arms control agreements between the United States and Russia. This is a very interesting conversation that discusses both the substance of the treaty but also the politics around potentially extending it or not. And if you are new to the podcast, welcome, please visit globaldispatchespodcast.com or subscribe wherever you’re listening to this show. To unlock the full feed and our robust archives of conversations about topical and thematic issues in global affairs. And of course you can always use the contact button on the homepage to get in touch with me. And today’s episode is brought to you by Northwestern University’s online master’s program in global health. You can learn how to make a meaningful difference in places where it is needed, the most go to globaldispatchespodcast.com and click on the ad to learn more or go to sps.northwestern.edu/global or just send me an email and I’ll put you in touch with the good people at Northwestern University. And now here is my conversation with Thomas Countryman.
There’s a 60 year history of efforts by Russia, the Soviet union and the United States to come to agreements on arms control that make both countries safer, that reduce the risk of nuclear war, that allow both sides to control some of the incredibly costly spending, nuclear weapons. And that ideally builds a bilateral relationship in which Moscow and Washington can solve other problems as well. So going all the way back to the limited test ban treaty negotiated in the Kennedy administration, we have quite a series of agreements that have limited both sides capabilities and kept a nuclear arms race in check. Some of the most important were the first, SALT, Strategic Arms Limitation agreement Treaties negotiated in the Nixon administration, that for the first time put a cap on the number of offensive warheads we aimed at each other. also during the Reagan and Gorbachev years, in the mid 1980s, was some of the most dramatic progress in arms control. Which included the negotiation of the INF, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty that eliminated an entire class, an entire category of weapons that the two sides had deployed in Europe.
And in keeping with this tradition, the Obama administration concluded in 2010 an agreement when we call New START, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. New START is significant because it brings the number of warheads that each side has deployed down to its lowest levels since the 1960s. Each side is limited to 1,550 deployed warheads, which is still a very significant number, enough to destroy both countries and probably to destroy the human race if fully employed. but it is the biggest step that has been taken in this very gradual 60 year long process of reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. It’s worth noting that both the United States and Russia possess only about 15% as many nuclear weapons as they possessed at the height of the Cold War.
So, but you served for most of the second half of the Obama administration as Assistant Secretary of State for International Security Non-proliferation. I mean, did New START affect your day to day work in any meaningful way?
Well, certainly one of the, important national priorities in the United States for many years has been non-proliferation. That is preventing additional countries from building nuclear weapons. And the key international agreement in this regard is the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT, which went into effect almost exactly 50 years ago in 1970. The NPT I consider to be the most important and most successful multilateral security treaty in history because of that agreement, instead of having literally dozens of nuclear weapons possessing countries around the world today, there are only nine. That’s still too many, but the success of the NPT has been central to us foreign policy. Now I mentioned the NPT because an essential part of the NPT is an agreement that if other countries will not pursue nuclear weapons, then the five nuclear weapons states that existed in 1970, the U S Soviet union, China, France, and Britain will work to reduce and eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals. The fact that the U S has moved from 30,000 warheads in the 1960s down to about 6,000 today is a demonstration that we take seriously that commitment to build down our nuclear arsenal.
I think it was the three legged chair I think is often the term that’s used to describe the NPT that, you know, at its heart as non-proliferation, new countries can’t get new nukes, but the countries that do have nukes should disarm. And then that third leg is the peaceful use of civilian purposes for nuclear energy should be used and monitored. Those are kind of three keys, right?
Yes. I mean, we do it not just because of the commitment, a legally binding commitment that the U S made in the NPT, we do it because it serves national security interests to have arms control agreements, to have predictability, stability and transparency in the relationship between Washington and Moscow.
Well, the initial term for New START was 10 years. That is, it took effect February 5th, 2011 and it would expire February 5th, 2021. The New START treaty includes a clause that is unusual in treaties, which is it gives the two countries the option to renew the agreement for up to five more years without having to go through the ratification process again.
That is, without resubmitting it to either the United States Senate or the Russian Duma. That means it only takes the signature of President Trump and President Putin to extend it for an additional five years. Now, despite the support of the American public, of the majority of us, Congressman, of the arms control advocates and in fact of the diplomatic military and intelligence communities of the United States government, the White House has been reluctant to take this step. there is the official reason and then I think there is the real reason.
The official reason is that President Trump wants to think bigger. He wants to have, not only an agreement between Moscow and Washington that limits the number of strategic weapons, but also an agreement that limits the number of smaller or non-strategic nuclear weapons. And more importantly, he wants an agreement that China would sign as well.
And so for the last year, the U S administration has been trying to figure out how to get China interested in joining into a trilateral agreement, something that has never been done before. That’s the official policy right now of the U S government. I think most people understand that the actual reason that President Trump does not want to simply sign an extension is because this is a treaty negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama. And as we have seen in so many other policy areas, the president has a pathological distaste for anything done by the Obama administration. And so as in other areas such as the trade agreement between the U S, Canada, and Mexico, he has to find a way to say he has improved. He’s done something unprecedented and certainly better than what Barack Obama did. And I think it is that mentality, that pathology, that prevents him from taking the very simple step of extending this agreement for an additional five years.
Well, there’s a number of ways that this might unfold. What I would like to see, of course, is for the Trump administration to take this step in the next several months. I think the president is only focused on his reelection and I would argue that this would be a positive thing for his reelection. It is the only foreign policy step and the only foreign policy step involving Russia that he could take that would be welcomed by leaders in both parties and therefore it should be in his interest to get this done. Another possibility is that he may see no political advantage and therefore may be waiting until after the election in order to take this step. And then another possibility of course, is that we may have a different president in January of 2021, and that person could make the choice in the first two weeks of her or his administration to sign this extension. That’s cutting it close and a lot of things could happen to make this go wrong before them. So I certainly hope that the president listens to his, the majority of his advisors and takes this step to extend the treaty.
Now, you know, as you well know, there is a group, a cohort in Washington D C and in policy circles more generally that are skeptical of arms control treaties and of non-proliferation treaties, or arms reduction treaties, I should say, like New START. What are some of the arguments that they’re making about say, the deficiencies of New START?
Yeah, there’s a lot of arguments that they make that run absolutely contrary to the view of the last 10 presidents, both Democratic and Republican, who have been, advocates of arms control, not as an exercise, not as a peacenik kind of movement, as some Republicans today would like to paint it. But as a national security step, something that makes the country safer. In my view, it is the most fundamental responsibility of a president to minimize the risk that the U S will be subject to an attack with nuclear weapons. but that’s not the way that some people in the Senate or people such as the former National Security Advisor, John Bolton saw it. Their point of view, if I could summarize it and not do it justice by making it too short, is that the United States as the strongest power in the world, military and economic and political power should not sign treaties because treaties restrained the U S and restraining the stronger power means you are giving up more than the weaker power is giving up.
I think that’s a perverse and unhelpful way to look at what treaties can do. What we should be seeking to do is to restrain the most dangerous behavior of the countries that threaten us. And if that includes us putting restraints on our ability to destroy them, it is a strong deal for national security. The other argument that you hear more from the Trump administration now is I think equally illogical. And that is the idea that a treaty must solve every possible problem at the same time. This is why Mr. Trump withdrew from the joint comprehensive program of action, the so-called Iran nuclear deal, because it did not solve every possible problem between the United States and Iran. And now when you talk about New START, he is hoping that you can solve every possible nuclear problem, not just between the U S and Russia, the U S, Russia, and China. That’s wonderful. That’s ambitious. It is utterly unrealistic. And of course, it is a different approach that he takes when he negotiates with Israel, with China, with any other country. He’s not seeking to solve every possible problem, but that is the ridiculous standard and the argument that is being made by the Trump administration today.
Well, it sort of goes back to your original pathology that you described, which is the idea that you want to sort of rip up what the previous administration did and somehow sell it as a bigger and grander gesture.
Well, I find the Trump administration’s approach in foreign policy in general to be incoherent, utterly lacking in strategy and dependent upon some serious professionals trying to interpret the latest tweet from the president. there is not a strategy. There are just approaches or positions. And that’s unfortunate. The part of the approach that is very concerning is the fact that this president doesn’t really understand nuclear weapons. He has not done what Ronald Reagan did when he became president and realized that command of the nuclear arsenal was literally his most awesome responsibility. And so Reagan studied and learned everything about nuclear weapons and it led to real breakthroughs in our national security through arms control agreements. This president has a ignorance and a fascination about nuclear weapons. And as a consequence, there is a prejudice within this administration for taking steps that make us look stronger, building new delivery systems for nuclear weapons, building ballistic missile defense as if that could make the United States invulnerable to nuclear attack.
That’s something that will never work. these are the dangerous tendencies, within the administration. Also in the broader sense, I just have to mention that what has to concern you about the incoherent approach of the administration to all of these nuclear issues is that in the end, this president can all by himself begin a nuclear war. There is no mechanism that requires the president to consult with anyone before he gives an order to launch a nuclear attack. We have a system that is built to rapidly carry out the president’s command to launch nuclear weapons. And when you look at the total personality, and the narcissistic egomania of Donald Trump, you have to be worried whether he understands that responsibility in a way that leaders like Eisenhower and Reagan did.
So in the coming days and weeks and months, say until the election, are there any inflection points that you’ll be looking towards that might suggest to you whether or not the Trump administration will take that action and renew the treaty? Is there anything that will suggest to you one way or another how this may play out over the coming months?
That’s extremely difficult because the only decision that matters is with the president and anyone who says that they know what this president is going to do is telling you a lie. but there are opportunities. One thing that I think is important is that, the majority of Republicans in both the house and the Senate support extension of New START and if they continue to make that point to the president during an election year, an election not only of the president but of senators as well, that could have an effect. The other thing to watch for is whether there are any opportunities this year for President Putin and President Trump to meet, for example, at a G20 summit. because that would be a natural opportunity for them to sign the extension of the treaty and for President Trump to make his claim that he has done something greater than President Obama could do. that’s at least one hope I have for how extension may be accomplished this year.
All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Thomas Countryman. That was very helpful and we’ll see what happens. I am particularly interested in seeing whether or not a new meeting with Vladimir Putin happens, for one during the heat of an election year and whether or not that meeting might result in potentially extending New START. I just don’t know. We’ll see. All right. Thank you all for listening. We’ll see you next time. Bye.