By John Erath
Oscar Wilde wrote that “to expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.” At the risk of being considered anti-intellectual, or possibly anti-modern, I believe it would be best to approach the June 16 Geneva Summit with limited expectations for a breakthrough on arms control.
This, however, is by no means a bad result. Eagerness for quick fixes could well undermine long-term prospects. The potential benefits from arms control done well are such that the issue is well worth discussing at any opportunity. These benefits can be achieved despite the other challenges in the relationship. While we should manage expectations for the summit, this should not stop President Biden from laying out a positive agenda.
It is important to remember that arms control is not an instant process. One cannot simply add water to freeze-dried ideas from the 1980s and have them take form and become ready for implementation in an afternoon. Previous agreements have come from years of discussions, the bulk of them outside formal treaty negotiations. Discussions about limiting intermediate-range nuclear forces began in 1980, and it would take more than seven years to complete the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
On the other hand, ideas to achieve instant, but unlikely results, such as tying Chinese participation to the bilateral New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) extension, have produced few gains. If it will take time before we even know that a new generation of agreements will be possible, the Presidents should start the process now. Both sides can easily agree to begin discussions, a likely, low-cost outcome.
What can we expect such a process to look like? First, it should be clear that nostalgia notwithstanding, there will be no return to the past. Neither side has shown interest in investing time and resources trying to revive the INF or Open Skies regimes. Russia has proceeded with production and deployment of INF-class missiles despite the best efforts of the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations and will not reverse course. The Biden administration has reviewed its immediate predecessor’s Open Skies policy and decided against rejoining the arrangement. Rather than waste time knocking on locked doors, the Presidents should look to the future.
There is ground for cooperation. Both governments can agree on the importance of lowering the risk of war and that the proliferation of nuclear weapons must be avoided. It is likely that the Presidents will task their governments to meet on a regular basis for dialogue on these points and that they will use a formulation to indicate that all issues will be open for discussion to get around disputes over whose agenda the talks will follow.
In this way, the United States will be able to raise Russian use of chemical agents in defiance of the Chemical Weapons Convention and the presence of non-strategic weapons where they threaten NATO allies. Russia will likewise bring up issues that Washington would prefer not to discuss, including U.S. missile defenses. Such a dialogue, properly structured, could be useful in establishing how Russia can be confident that missile defenses do not threaten Russian deterrence, removing one of Putin’s objections to pursuing further arms control.
To continue the theme, both sides should seek transparency and confidence-building steps, areas that have been lacking since the completion of New START, that can lower the risk of war and prepare the ground for more dramatic initiatives later. These could start, for example, with working groups to provide transparency on both sides’ nuclear modernization plans and to examine the global aspect of nuclear weapons with a focus on how to engage China.
None of this will be easy. Many in the United States will object to interacting with a government and its leader who suppress dissent, invade their neighbors and interfere in others’ elections. Putin, for his part, will receive advice not to proceed with arms control in light of Russia’s supposed conventional inferiority.
The advantages, for both sides to dialogue, however, outweigh these considerations. When the INF Treaty was painstakingly negotiated 40 years ago, the United States and Soviet Union were not friends, and both countries entertained suspicions about the other’s behavior. However, in the era of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics, there was somehow room to get discussions underway. If no breakthroughs occur this time, but a process is started, this summit, too, can have a positive outcome. Sometimes, a process can be a product.