In his Reuters interview on February 23, US President Donald Trump said the United States has fallen behind in its weapons capacity and he wants America «to be at the top of the pack». This was the first time the US president made publicly known his stance on the New START Treaty, calling it «a one-sided deal. «Just another bad deal that the country made, whether it's START, whether it's the Iran deal ... We're going to start making good deals», he stated.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said at a regular briefing on February 23 that the president «was very clear on is that the United States will not yield its supremacy in this area to anybody. That's what he made very clear in there. And that if other countries have nuclear capabilities, it will always be the United States that has the supremacy and commitment to this».
The 2010 New START requires that by February 5, 2018, both countries must limit their arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons to equal levels for 10 years. Each party is permitted to have no more than 700 operationally deployed and 100 non-deployed delivery means. The total number of deployed warheads is limited to 1,550 on each side. The Treaty includes inspection and verifications procedures, allowing each side to ensure that the other is complying with the limits. It expires in 2021. The agreement can be prolonged by five years if both sides agree to do it.
The US plans to launch a $1 trillion, 30-year modernization of its nuclear triad.
Mr. Trump also accused Russia of being in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) that bans land-based American and Russian intermediate-range missiles. According to him, he would raise the issue when meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin.
«Perhaps, it’s been the most alarming statement by Trump on relations with Russia. The New START is based on absolute parity in nuclear arsenals. It is aimed at preventing each of the sides from 'being at the top of the pack' in nuclear capabilities. This is the only way to provide global strategic security», Konstantin Kosachev, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council (upper house) of the Russian State Duma, wrote in a Facebook post.
It has been questioned for some time whether Donald Trump wants to abrogate New START, withdraw from the Treaty or work for a new agreement. His statement does say exactly what his intention is, but there is a reason to believe the future of the Treaty and the whole arms control regime is questioned at best.
It should be noted that in 2010 the New START received strong support from US defense establishment. It was ratified by the Senate with bipartisan support, approved by a vote of 71-26. Five former Republican Secretaries of State George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger and Colin Powell endorsed the agreement in 2010, writing, that it was «in the national interest to ratify New START». Back then, Senator Bob Corker, the current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also backed the Treaty. The five most recent US presidents had negotiated agreements with Russia to reduce the nuclear stockpiles.
In 2013, then President Barack Obama that the United States can reduce its nuclear force by another one-third below the New START levels and still meet US deterrence requirements. He had weighed all the pros and cons carefully before making his stance public. Today, many US officials and experts, including State Secretary Rex Tillerson, support the New START.
With the Treaty in force, nobody wins and nobody loses – Russia and the US have far more strategic weapons than is necessary to deter nuclear attack by the other or by any other nuclear-armed country. The New START has lowered and capped the nuclear superpowers’ excessive strategic nuclear potentials poised on «launch-under-attack» alert status. Once discarded, it would do away with any limits on the arsenals and put an end to the extensive inspections to verify the compliance, making transparency turn to opacity.
With the nuclear arsenals unaccounted, the security of both – Russia and the US – will be reduced. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Former commander of STRATCOM Gen. Kevin Chilton, said, «If we don’t get the treaty, the Russians are not constrained in their development of force structure and… we have no insight into what they’re doing. So it’s the worst of both possible worlds».
Expanding the US arsenal with new or additional nuclear weapons would cost billions at the time the national debt is nearing $20 trillion, while the New START allows the United States to keep enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet several times over. Without the New START and INF effective, America will be compelled to waste enormous military and financial resources.
Is it not in the United States’ advantage to verifiably reduce the Russian arsenal and use the resources more effectively? The same thing applies to Russia. Keeping the treaties in force meets the mutual interest. Then why tear up the agreements that serve the purpose so well?
The US president took this stance at the time the entire system of comprehensive arms control could soon unravel. The US abandoned the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to greatly complicate prospects for further progress. Washington has not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) more than two decades after the negotiations concluded. The future of the INF Treaty is uncertain. The list can go on.
Now it questions the future of the remaining pillars of the arms control regime – the New START and INF treaties. If Russia and the US tear up the existing agreements, the other eight states, including the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan (or even nine with North Korea counted), with nuclear weapons will certainly be reluctant as ever to join the disarmament process and limit their arsenals.
It took a series of risky crises, like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, and several cycles of an extremely costly arms race for the nuclear superpowers to realize how dangerous the threat was and the urgent need for practical steps to prevent the worst. Nuclear arms control treaties have become a top priority of the bilateral relationship. Now the wisdom of this approach is being questioned.
The independent Arms Control Association non-profit group criticized the president’s remarks. «Mr. Trump's comments suggest, once again, that he is ill-informed about nuclear weapons and has a poor understanding of the unique dangers of nuclear weapons», the group said in a statement. «The history of the Cold War shows us that no one comes out on 'top of the pack' of an arms race and nuclear brinksmanship».
To back out from the New START and the INF treaties will inevitably provoke a burgeoning nuclear race. Even a cursory look at the history of arms control reveals the wisdom of Soviet (Russian) and US leaders finding ways to cap their arsenals even in the heat of the Cold War. Now all the efforts applied in the past may go down the drain as the US is going back to the once tried policy of seeking nuclear dominance.