International Policy Digest

Gage Skidmore
World News /29 Nov 2020

Protect Humanity’s Future: Extend New START Now

Albert Einstein said, “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…” If human nature hasn’t changed, then the existence of 13,500 nuclear weapons are of grave concern. While no country is safe from nuclear weapons, the massive responsibility of avoiding nuclear war falls primarily on two nations: the United States and Russia. Together, they possess about 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal, and with it, the power to destroy humanity.

The clock is now ticking on the last remaining arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia – New START, set to expire on February 5, 2021. While Russia has made clear its willingness to extend the treaty for five years, the Trump administration’s insistence on a new agreement risks a total collapse of U.S.-Russia arms control. To protect humanity’s future, the United States should extend New START for five years.

New START limits Russia and the U.S. to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads, 700 deployed missiles, and bombers, and includes site inspections to verify compliance. If this last remaining treaty governing U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces ends, the world’s most destructive weapons will be unlimited for the first time since the Cold War. The world will be thrust into a nuclear arms race with reduced deterrence, more miscommunication, and higher chances of nuclear war.

The Trump administration has gambled with New START by insisting on a new treaty that limits Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons, development of new delivery systems, and China’s arsenal. While worthwhile goals, there isn’t enough time to negotiate a more complex agreement before New START expires. Likewise, China won’t join an arms control agreement until the U.S. and Russia drastically reduce their arsenals. New START is far too valuable to use as a bargaining chip for other purposes.

New START provides stability that reduces the risk of nuclear war. The treaty’s information-sharing mechanisms give Russia and the U.S. critical knowledge of each other’s nuclear capabilities, which provides deterrence. Each side also receives notifications on the use or movement of missiles, limiting miscommunication. History is replete with uncertainty leading to conflict; this must not occur in the age of nuclear weapons.

New START prevents a costly nuclear arms race. The Trump administration has proposed a $429 billion modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal within the limits of New START. But if the treaty collapses, it’s estimated that the U.S. would need to spend an additional $439 billion to deploy more nuclear weapons and monitor Russian capabilities. Given the economic consequences of COVID-19, it would be foolish to spend vast amounts of money on weapons that only make the world less safe.

An extension of New START is the best path towards future arms control talks. The Trump administration is correct that Russia’s development of new delivery systems, tactical nuclear weapons, and China’s growing arsenal should be addressed. But these negotiations will be complicated and time-consuming. With the stability provided by New START, negotiators will be afforded the time to work out a comprehensive treaty.

Proponents of a new treaty see an extension of New START as a failure to address these concerns. Of course, the treaty isn’t perfect. But New START is the beginning foundation for building a future of real nuclear security, not the end. Historically, arms control agreements have been built on one another. New START is only “new” because it’s based on the 1991 START I Treaty. Nuclear security will never be entirely addressed by one agreement. Giving up five years of guaranteed security in the hopes of a better deal is tremendously risky. Once arms control is gone, it may never return.

The United States must not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. A simple agreement between President Trump (or eventually President Biden) and President Putin to extend New START for five years will maintain nuclear security’s critical guardrails. We can prove Einstein wrong that nuclear weapons have indeed changed our way of thinking. We can protect humanity’s future by extending New START now.