By Matthew Teasdale
The fate of the last nuclear arms control treaty between the two largest nuclear powers is under serious duress. Russia has suspended its participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and halted semiannual data exchanges on its nuclear arsenal. Ever since, a so-called “end of nuclear arms control” has dominated headlines, calling into question the value of New START and arms control writ large. The growing concern over the fate of New START and arms control more generally points to an understanding that arms control still offers value, but whether the treaty is worth keeping, however, is the wrong question.
Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended New START in February 2023 immediately before the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is hard not to pick up Putin’s hint. The Kremlin is tying the fate of New START to American support for an independent Ukraine, in effect holding hostage something it knows is important to the Biden administration to force a change of behavior on something important to Russia. But it’s unlikely that the United States will relent. Washington cannot tolerate Moscow’s use of nuclear blackmail if the United States wants to avoid a precedent for further nuclear-assisted conquests. Despite the Kremlin’s bravado, maintaining limits on nuclear weapons is as much in Russia’s interests as it is in Washington’s, if not more so.
That’s why headlines decrying the death of arms control are short-sighted. Questions about the value of arms control ignore the many non-proliferation treaties that remain in effect as well as the unique history of arms control. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and other global measures remain. Nuclear-weapon-free-zones like that covering Southern America are still standing, and export control regimes like the Wassenaar Arrangement and Missile Technology Control Regime endure. Even the remaining provisions of New START provide needed predictability on nuclear arsenals, proving its ongoing value.
Historically, arms control has a way of recovering in deteriorating security climates. The United States and the Soviet Union signed multiple arms control agreements like the Partial Test Ban Treaty and the NPT as well as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty after respective periods of Cold War brinkmanship. The Cuban Missile Crisis nearly brought the two powers to nuclear confrontation, but also had the reverse effect of cooling tensions between Washington and Moscow. This “end of arms control” narrative dangerously plays into Kremlin fear-mongering and blackmailing. One should not discount that global nuclear destruction would never be in anyone’s interest.
Admittedly, the darkening international order has an inextricable link to the perceptions around nuclear weapons. Destabilizing developments like a potentially nuclear Iran, a vertically proliferating China or a belligerent North Korea force other countries to consider nuclear proliferation. Saudi Arabia has maintained that if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, it will follow suit as soon as possible. Japan is increasing its defense spending and Australia has entered the AUKUS agreement, under which it could acquire nuclear-powered submarines at tremendous expense, due to perceptions of the growing Chinese threat. The South Korean President even mused about the idea of developing a nuclear arsenal in the face of Pyongyang. The threat of these weapons forces global actors to internalize the terror that they project. Without effective non-proliferation and arms control, more and more countries could perceive a need for nuclear weapons.
When New START was first negotiated, it was meant to live up to its name and be the onramp to a new generation of arms control. For too long, the treaty has been considered as an end and not as a means to promote global stability. The growing concerns about nuclear proliferation emanating from Russia’s actions should spur new interest in arms control beyond the limited scope of the treaty. The possible domino effect resulting from Russian threats and blackmail should illustrate that nuclear proliferation is a global problem, and those seeking to prevent nuclear war need to start (pun intended) thinking about more than propping up the existing agreement.
New START and future arms reduction treaties must adapt to a new global security climate. Efforts to reduce the global nuclear threat should be just that — global. While the “end of arms control” is far from reality, nuclear proliferation could become more attractive without active efforts to prevent it. Deterrence will play a larger role in allied strategies with Russia, but this does not mean that New START is over. Withdrawing from a treaty that continues to provide limits on strategic forces would be a mistake and only exacerbate the fracturing security order. The question, however, should not be limited to whether the treaty is worth keeping, but how to use the concern raised by Russia’s actions to start a real conversation about taking arms control into the future.