By John Erath, Senior Policy Director
I was recently asked about the future, or lack thereof, of arms control in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the suspension of dialogue between Washington and Moscow. The specific concern was that in the absence of a formal arms control process, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) could expire in 2026, and with it the remaining legally binding limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear forces.
Without trying to argue that we would be better off without New START — we wouldn’t — focusing solely on limitation treaties runs the risk of confusing the end with the means. Our goal should be to minimize the danger of nuclear weapons, not simply to have treaties, and there are a number of possible lines of effort that can and should be pursued, pending the revival of a big-ticket treaty process.
Aggression by a nuclear power, especially coupled with threats of nuclear weapons use, points to the urgent importance of strengthening non-proliferation efforts. This means devoting more effort and resources to diplomacy aimed at resolving regional disputes without triggering arms races. The State Department offices tasked with non-proliferation and arms control have been historically understaffed, with key jobs being filled only gradually. The narrative that Ukraine was victimized in part because it gave up nuclear weapons is already out there and needs to be countered with messaging that more nuclear weapons will actually increase dangers worldwide.
Meanwhile, China’s nuclear buildup remains a source of uncertainty, even though the total number of Chinese weapons is far below that of the United States. China is the only nuclear state substantially increasing its stockpile and is not transparent about its plans. Given the asymmetry, it would be unlikely for Beijing to agree to a limitation agreement, but there remains considerable scope for confidence building to reinforce deterrence, so the risk of inadvertent use remains low.
The Cold War era, during which the United States and Soviet Union owned nearly all nuclear weapons, is far in the past. If we expect to ever return to arms control, it will need to be global, not simply bilateral, in scope and getting China involved in stability talks can open the way.
Although Russia’s violations of international law have forced us to consider how to proceed while the formal arms control process is on hold, it would be an error to proceed as though the absence of such a process automatically means the end of arms control or a greater danger of nuclear weapons use. National and global interests dictate that it is worth pursuing such non-proliferation and arms control efforts as they will help lower tensions and possibly set the stage for eventual reductions in nuclear weapons.