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Diplomacy finally front and center again with extension of U.S.-Russia New START Treaty

By Gael Tarleton, WAND Board member

This piece was originally published in The Cascadia Advocate

We should pay attention to President Joe Biden’s deft and swift move to re-enter the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement with the Russian Federation and extend its implementation through February 4th, 2026.

Biden’s first weeks as President foreshadow an intense and intentional pursuit of diplomacy to re-enter treaties, renew alliances, and manage partnerships to tackle threats to the safety and security of all Americans.

Yes, it may be difficult to focus on nuclear weapons and nuclear war when we’re fighting right now to save our democracy against domestic extremists and persistent attacks on voting rights and elections.

It’s even harder to look ahead to the next decade of threats from cyberattacks, climate disasters, and homegrown terrorism – not to mention the risks of nuclear war — when the novel coronavirus has killed more than 500,000 Americans and 2.5 million people worldwide in the past twelve months.

But we should never take our future security for granted when thousands of nuclear warheads are deployed right here in Washington State and are top targets of Russian strategic nuclear forces. Current U.S. budget proposals include massive investments in a modernized U.S. nuclear triad. So it’s clear: we still need nuclear force reduction treaties to reduce the risks of nuclear disasters.

What is New START?

Former United States President Barack Obama and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed New START on April 8, 2010.

Following its ratification by the U.S. Senate and the Federal Assembly of Russia, the treaty went into force on February 5, 2011.

It’s important to know a few things about this pivotal nuclear treaty between the United States and Russian Federation, which NPI strongly supports:

  • It’s not really “new” – it is a continuation of the original START treaty in force from 1994 through 2009.

  • New START was originally in force from 2011 to 2018

  • Under New START, the United States and Russia met the treaty’s limits on strategic offensive weapons and delivery by the treaty deadline of February 5th, 2018.

In 2020, Donald Trump and his entourage signaled that United States agreement to an extension would depend on including China in the negotiations.

New START ensures that the United States and Russia continue to implement nuclear force reductions negotiated under the original START agreement. Arguably the most historic nuclear arms reduction agreement ever negotiated, START went into force in 1994 and within seven years Americans and Russians had destroyed nearly eighty percent of their strategic nuclear weapons. The treaty barred its signatories from deploying more than 6,000 nuclear warheads on a total of 1,600 intercontinental ballistic missiles (land-based and sea-based combined) and long-range bombers.

Under New START, the treaty’s monitoring and verification protocols will ensure continued compliance through the February 2026 extension just adopted by U.S. President Biden and Russian President Putin.

According to the U.S. State Department:

Both the United States and the Russian Federation met the central limits of the New START Treaty by February 5, 2018 and have stayed at or below them ever since. Extending New START ensures we will have verifiable limits on the mainstay of Russian nuclear weapons that can reach the U.S. homeland for the next five years. As of the most recent data exchange on September 1, 2020, the Russian Federation declared 1,447 deployed strategic warheads. The Russian Federation has the capacity to deploy many more than 1,550 warheads on its modernized ICBMs and SLBMs, as well as heavy bombers, but is constrained from doing so by New START.

The same restrictions apply to U.S. land- and sea-based ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. Right here in Washington State, the Ohio-class strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) provide a significant portion of the sea-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad. Each SSBN was previously armed with up to twenty-four Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

As part of the New START treaty, four tubes on each SSBN have been deactivated, leaving each ship with 20 tubes for ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.

These monitoring and verification regimes are central to the whole “trust but verify” component of treaties requiring permanent destruction of weapons and their means of delivery. Without the New START Treaty extension, we would have no ability to verify continued Russian compliance with these missile and nuclear warhead limits. Nor would the Russians have the ability to verify Americans are still honoring the deal. Moreover, the treaty provides the mechanisms for both parties to address concerns about potential or actual non-compliance and to take actions to remedy violations should they be confirmed.

Any time we succeed in destroying weapons – nuclear, chemical, biological, conventional, long-range or short-range, battlefield or intercontinental – we’ve reduced risks of catastrophic loss. That’s a good thing for all of us.

How will nonproliferation diplomacy influence twenty-first century negotiations?

Here’s why Biden’s decision to re-enter and extend New START matters to this century’s diplomatic challenges:

  • It reaffirms the essential responsibility of all parties to consent to equal, transparent, and accountable on-site monitoring and verification of weapons destruction.

  • It establishes the legitimacy of using similar intrusive inspection regimes for future treaties.

  • It commits to the principle of entering treaties to manage risks and reduce threats to people.

It’s time for diplomacy to take center stage again.

As one of the intelligence analysts and subsequently federal government contractors who helped U.S. national security and intelligence officials define and implement nuclear treaty monitoring and verification regimes for START, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987), and the never-ratified Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996), I had a figurative front-row seat to high-stakes diplomacy.

I saw what worked (and didn’t work) and I helped negotiators find solutions to comply with the most complex and contentious treaty terms and conditions.

From the Kennedy to Obama administrations, presidents have used diplomacy as a means to prevent conflict, reduce escalation of conflict, or ultimately to resolve conflict. Going after terrorists and regimes harboring terrorists dominated the U.S. national security agenda during the Bush II and Obama administrations, yet both of these presidents sustained America’s commitment to treaties negotiated by predecessors while also negotiating new treaties and diplomatic agreements.

Then came Donald Trump.

Throughout his four-year term, Trump withdrew.

He was the great unraveler, pulling America out of treaties, international organizations, and multilateral partnerships. Four years of dismissing seasoned diplomats and denigrating the value of diplomacy undermined the core mission of diplomats in embassies and consulates around the world. Predictably, Americans lost touch with what diplomacy looks like and what it can accomplish. And the rest of the world could no longer trust America to honor its commitments.

There are so many challenges ahead for the new administration.

In the wake of the Trump mob’s assault on the Capitol, the security threats are persistent and concurrent: Terrorism. Climate damage. Pandemics. Cyberattacks. Genocide. Human trafficking. Civil war. Nuclear threats.

When living through turbulent times, diplomacy matters more than ever.

In President Biden’s first thirty days, diplomats around the world had Americans back to work at several negotiating tables:

  • New START

  • Paris Climate Accord

  • Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran

  • World Health Organization

  • UN Human Rights Council

Diplomacy is making a comeback with the Biden Administration. We cannot underestimate the sheer magnitude of the challenges we collectively face.

Importantly, when asked how the administration would juggle the pandemic, economic crises, climate threats, domestic extremism and more, Kamala Harris said: “We know how to multi-task.” Diplomats are born multi-taskers. They will make diplomacy work for all of us. I’m cheering for all of them.