Obama administration pursues arms control at great gain to United States

It is already bad enough that Russia is invading its neighbors and destabilizing European security—last thing you want is for Russia to throw out U.S. nuclear inspectors, which is precisely what some critics of arms control propose to do. Rebecca Heinrichs argues in “Obama administration pursues arms control at great loss,” that the United States should suspend implementation of the New START Treaty in reaction to Russia’s violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Suspending implementation of New START is short-sighted. Rather than punishing Russia, a decision to withdraw from New START (and other treaties) would place U.S. and NATO security in a perilous position.

Here’s why. Once New START is gone, it would be gone permanently, depriving the United States of a useful tool. The New START Treaty has no legal provision that would permit a state party to “suspend” implementation. Article IX allows for a party to invoke its “supreme national interests” clause to withdraw from the treaty, but there is no allowance for a temporary suspension. Russia similarly invoked a non-existent “suspension” clause when it stopped implementation of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty in 2007—subsequent attempts to resolve differences between the Western bloc states and Russia failed, leaving each the CFE’s 30 parties without what could have been a useful confidence building tool as tensions in Europe mount.

A hasty U.S. decision to halt New START implementation will also free Russia from numerical constraints and intelligence information that only inspections can offer.

During Senate consideration of New START, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that the treaty’s on-site inspections provide the intelligence community with valuable insight into Russia’s nuclear forces. A collapse of New START will deprive the United States of the ability to conduct 18 inspections a year of Russia’s facilities to verify the accuracy of its own declarations on strategic offensive weapons.

Finally, withdrawal would prevent further arms control measures. Experts and policymakers expect that the next round of arms control could address Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons. As New START was the successor to the START Treaty signed by President H.W. Bush, U.S. and Russian negotiators did not set out to include limits on non-strategic nuclear weapons. Fixing the asymmetry in NATO and Russia non-strategic nuclear weapons is only possible through direct engagement and participation in multilateral forums.

The desire to conclude an agreement that inventories the size and location of Russia’s vast non-strategic stockpile is a point of rare bipartisan unity, and supported by NATO’s Baltic members whose territory abuts suspected Russia’s nuclear weapon storage sites.  However, sacrificing New START will only heighten U.S. and NATO concerns.

The United States enters into treaties because the benefits far outweigh the alternatives. U.S.-Russian strategic cooperation on New START has thankfully remained unaffected by Russia’s belligerent actions in Ukraine.

In following the advice of critics, the United States would add a nuclear dimension to an  already combustible security situation.

This piece originally appeared in The Hill on September 11, 2014.

Photo by Mathieu Thouvenin