Aligning Disarmament to Nuclear Dangers: Off to a Hasty START?

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Key Points

Confronted by a daunting array of nuclear threats, and having pledged to reinvigorate the application of disarmament tools to address these dangers, the Obama administration has decided to focus its initial efforts on negotiating a new bilateral agreement with Russia to replace the Cold War-era Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires at the end of this year.

Critics have suggested that reviving the U.S.-Russian strategic disarmament agenda is at best a distraction from a host of more pressing security challenges that the United States needs to address now and in the years ahead. There is no debate that it would be useful from a U.S. perspective to preserve the transparency that START provides. But Washington has little to gain directly, at least in traditional military terms, from further reductions in the legacy arsenal of its erstwhile Cold War adversary. By contrast, for reasons both political and military, Russia has an urgent incentive to achieve a strategic parity through negotiations that it otherwise could not sustain. The key issue thus becomes whether the Obama administration can achieve a modest agreement at little cost, or alternatively leverage the negotiations to gain a wider set of benefits beyond the straightforward bilateral reductions in question.

The analysis deduces that a positive outcome would provide modest ancillary benefits for several higher priority objectives--for example, incentivizing China to participate in a wider follow-on strategic nuclear arms reduction process, or bringing greater international pressure to bear on nuclear proliferators such as Iran. However, these spinoff benefits would not be sufficient to warrant high costs in terms of major concessions of U.S. strategic interests relative to Russia. Any such costs could only be justified by the inclusion of favorable external linkages, meaning explicit Russian offsets to address higher priority nuclear dangers in return for concessions favoring Moscow's strategic interests. The Obama administration will therefore need to carefully weigh this overarching cost-benefit equation as it navigates the complexities of the first major strategic arms control talks in almost a decade.

(Re)launching Negotiations

Although the strategic arms reductions required by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) have long since been fulfilled, there are sound reasons to preserve aspects of this legacy treaty beyond December 5, 2009. (1) While few have seen this as a top national security priority, there has been no real dispute about the desirability of trying to extend at least some START elements, most notably its longstanding verification provisions. If nothing else, these proven mechanisms underpin the standalone reductions in operationally deployed strategic warheads that the more recent Moscow Treaty requires by 2012. (2) As then-Secretary of State Colin Powell noted in submitting the Moscow Treaty to President George W. Bush in 2002, "START's comprehensive verification regime will provide the foundation for confidence, transparency and predictability in [these] further strategic offensive reductions." (3) Largely with the aim to preserve this transparency infrastructure, the Bush administration responded positively to Russian President Vladimir Putin's call in 2006 for talks on a new treaty to replace START, which began in March 2007. However, this effort never produced a common understanding on the basic shape of a new agreement. Both sides agreed early on that they did not want to extend START per se. But whereas the United States simply wanted to enhance the Moscow Treaty with transparency measures drawn from, or, in some cases, going beyond START, Russia sought an entirely new treaty that would effectively supersede the Moscow Treaty. Its main goal was to shift the operative unit of account for Moscow Treaty reductions from deployed warheads to the START formula focusing on delivery systems. …