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An Arms-Control Agenda for President Joe Biden

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By Jason Sibert

After just a few weeks in office, President Joe Biden renewed a commitment to the idea of security through arms control by renewing the New START Treaty with Russia.

This secured a cap on the number of strategic deployed nuclear missiles for at least five years. Although renewing New START represented the fulfillment of a campaign promise, the administration issued an Interim National Security Guidance early this month that placed arms control in the national-security strategy: "We will head off costly arms races and re-establish our credibility as a leader in arms control. That is why we moved quickly to extend the New START Treaty with Russia. Where possible, we will also pursue new arms control arrangements. We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible. And we will engage in meaningful dialogue with Russia and China on a range of emerging military technological developments that implicate strategic stability."

The represents a powerful statement on faith in the power of international law and arms control; but using the words "where possible" admits that the geopolitical struggles in our world constitute a hurdle. Strained relations with Russia and China represent an obstacle to future arms control, but this obstacle can be overcome. Certain short-term goals, with Russia and China, followed by mid-term and long-term options are achievable, as stated by Sharon Squassoni in her story "How the Biden Administration Can Secure Real Gains in Arms Control."

The New START Treaty helped us draw down the number of deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550, as the United States has 1,350 and Russia has 1,444. Drawing down to 1,100 or 1,000 warheads has been discussed in the last decade, and this could be done by reducing warhead loadings on submarine-launched ballistic missiles or reducing the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force.

Russia's deployment of ground-launched cruise missiles known as 9M729 missiles potentially threatens European capitals again with intermediate-range, nuclear-tipped missiles. Once solved by the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the category of intermediate-range missiles may once again be up for negotiations. Without admitting to violations of the INF Treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered in 2020 to hold off on deploying 9M729 missiles in the European portion of Russia in exchange for restraint on the part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. As suggested by Squassoni, the U.S. should seek to ban missiles of that range via joint-transparency measures.

Although the U.S. and China's military forces are not near parity, as the U.S. still spends a lot more on its military than China. The U.S.-China relationship will not be immune from the types of power balancing the world saw in the U.S-Soviet Russia competition in the Cold War. Right now, China maintains a nuclear arsenal just big enough to deter aggressors and does not attempt to match either the U.S. or Russia, although it must be added that China and Russia are allied in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. However, China has the economic output to build a larger nuclear arsenal if it wants to.

The U.S. should encourage China to join the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in a moratorium, along with a plan for eliminating fissile material stocks not in weapons. At a minimum, this would provide assurance that China would not build up to US and Russian levels. The UK and France, with their many tons of plutonium, should join such a regime. Addressing fissile material capabilities in a multilateral forum is necessary anyway, particularly to boost P-5 credibility at the upcoming 2021 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, but it also redirects Chinese deflection of bilateral and trilateral negotiations. Other potential collaboration with China could focus on getting North Korea to adhere to a production moratorium.

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Jason Sibert worked for the Suburban Journals in the St. Louis area as a staff writer for a decade. His work has been published in a variety of publications since then and he is currently the executive director of the Peace Economy Project.
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