Biden May Have 16 Days to Stave Off a Nuclear Arms Race

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The New START Treaty is the last bilateral nuclear arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia. It’s scheduled to expire on Feb. 5. Assuming the Trump administration doesn’t agree with Russia on an extension—and it hasn’t done so in nearly four years–President Joe Biden will have just 16 days from Inauguration Day to rescue the pact.

If New START is allowed to expire, a nuclear arms race could break out. Retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, wrote in aBloomberg Opinion column on Oct. 30, that a stop to New START would allow both sides to deploy more nukes of current designs as well as make more advanced systems, “all of which would be very destabilizing.”

Some pressure, right? For insight into what Biden and his team will do, I interviewed Jon Wolfsthal, who served from 2014 to 2017 as a special assistant to President Barack Obama and as senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council. He was also a senior adviser to Vice President Biden on nuclear security and nonproliferation from 2009 to 2012.

Wolfsthal says he’s optimistic about Biden’s chances of staving off a fresh nuclear arms race. “Next year will be my 40th year working on nuclear issues,” he says. “I started as a teenager in the freeze movement.”  He’s spent the Trump years working for Global Zero, a nongovernmental organization devoted to nuke reduction, as head of its nuclear crisis group.

“I’ve come to the realization that there’s never an end point,” Wolfsthal says. “It’s a process. There are times when you’re more effective and there are times when things are negative. Because the consequence of failure is so great, the use of these weapons would be so traumatic, people continue to work on it.” 

Wolfsthal characterizes Trump’s approach to nuclear arms control as “both extreme and extremely ineffective,” involving “gut instinct.” Biden, he says, is more experienced in arms control and more process-oriented. “A workable process is a prerequisite. The Biden administration will make mistakes, but they will have looked at the alternatives,” he says.

When I spoke with Wolfsthal on Nov. 18 he predicted that Biden would fill key roles with trusted advisers such as Anthony Blinken. A few days later his prediction came true when Biden named Blinken as his choice for secretary of State and Jake Sullivan for national security adviser. 

Biden and his team will have a long list of nuclear weapons problems to deal with, including the rapid growth of China’s arsenal. But what to do about New START will have to be at the top of the list. The treatylimits the U.S. and Russia to deployment of 1,550 long-range nuclear warheads and 700 long-range delivery vehicles each. Russia is willing to renew the pact for five years without preconditions, but the Trump administration has balked. It wants to strengthen verification provisions and broaden the treaty to cover other Russian nukes, including short-range missiles and new delivery vehicles such ashypersonic glide vehicles. It also wants New START to cover China, which is a stretch—and something Russia has little to no influence over.

Wolfsthal says New START, which went into effect in 2011, is flawed but shouldn’t be left to expire, because “it has allowed us to maintain security at lower level of nukes. It least allows us to know how many weapons Russia has.” Without the verification that New START permits, he says, “there would be claims of a missile gap,” as there were under Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan. “We’ve seen that movie play out before,” namely in a costly and dangerous arms race, Wolfsthal says.

Nuclear arms control doesn’t get as much attention as other priorities for Biden’s first 100 days, but nothing is more important for the safety of the human race. 


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