One of President Joe Biden’s first foreign policy moves was to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia without seeking to improve or adapt the treaty first, as the Trump administration sought to do. President Biden’s decision to fully extend the treaty without condition was mostly met with a figurative sigh of relief from arms control advocates and those who seek a world “free of nuclear weapons.” But Americans should be sober-minded about the real impact of the treaty, and not be lulled into believing New START, or any one treaty, will moderate US adversaries or better position the United States in our competition with either Russia or China.
The Trump administration’s foreign policy ushered in the United States’ “return to great power competition” with Russia and China. But, as I’ve written elsewhere, competition, rivalry, and outright hostility have always existed. Or, as the late, brilliant strategist Colin Gray wrote for the National Institute of Public Policy in 2017:
What is happening today is not a return to the much unbeloved Cold War of quite recent memory (only 26 years), but rather to the enduring reality of international politics as usual. This persisting condition has always been characterized by competition—political, economic, and inevitably military also. If we read history as we should, we learn that distrust or more active dislike among great powers, including actual warfare, is both normal and to a degree inevitable.
US policymakers may not have felt like they were in competition with China, even though the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had the will to undermine America, invade smaller countries, or harm businessmen who speak ill of Beijing. The CCP just did not have the ability to carry out its will. But in the three decades since the apex of American global power and preeminence, the Chinese have used America’s open economy and willingness to trade vigorously to get rich. The CCP now has the power—an economy and military—to carry out its national will much more brazenly. When we rank our enemies, we must always assess those two criteria: their will to do us harm, which gets at the nature of their regime and system of government, and their ability to actualize their will.
The Russians, on the other hand, have openly competed with, opposed, and threatened the United States and our allies, and even invaded sovereign nations, as it did to Georgia in 2008. Despite Russia’s behavior, the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Policy Review was at least partially based on the assumption that “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries.” Russia then invaded Ukraine in 2014, and it has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear force against America’s NATO allies. Although the Russian economy is much smaller than the US or Chinese economies, Moscow does have something else that gives it enormous coercive power—a significant and active nuclear weapons program.
Due to the continuation of great power competition with China and Russia, I co-wrote a new report in my capacity as a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute with policy analyst Patty-Jane Geller of the Heritage Foundation. We argue that “the criteria necessary to achieve strategic stability are greater than merely an extension of the flawed and limited New START agreement.”
What brings about strategic stability is complex. Strategists must constantly think through how the US deters major war and preserves peace (a relative peace, as Christian realists understand). They should consider whether the US must adapt its nuclear forces, conventional forces, missile defenses, or doctrines to deter adversaries more effectively and credibly. Such deterrence must provide credible assurances to allies who rely on US extended deterrence.
Geller and I seek to warn policymakers against that great power competition with Russia and China did not end when the Biden administration extended New START with the Russians. Our report concludes:
The Biden Administration recently agreed to an unconditional five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with the Russian Federation before it was scheduled to expire on February 5, 2021. New START restricts the number of strategic nuclear delivery systems and warheads each country can deploy, but the treaty contains significant flaws. Instead of continuing the Trump Administration’s efforts to seek improvements to the treaty, the United States received nothing in return for its agreement to extend. In fact, just days later, perhaps feeling empowered to dictate terms, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated that any future treaty must include U.S. missile defense.
A New START extension does not equate to nuclear stability, and the United States should not expect it to moderate Russia’s aggressive behavior. Russia and China will continue to advance their nuclear forces as part of their strategies for implementing their respective revisionist national agendas. The United States must not become lulled into a false sense of security offered by another five years of New START; instead, the Biden Administration, with Congress, must remain committed to modernizing U.S. nuclear forces in order to ensure the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and assurance of allies, while engaging in muscular diplomacy with adversaries.
When judging whether Biden was wise to extend New START, Americans should remember the nature of our adversaries and the myriad ways they might implement their agendas. A regime’s type, view of national objectives, willingness to accept risk, and assessment of America’s willingness to accept risk—especially as it relates to nuclear escalation—matter greatly when considering what will and will not result in stability. And Russia’s leaders do not think or behave like China’s. Vladimir Putin is no Xi Jinping. And, though China and Russia pose the greatest threats, North Korea is a nuclear menace with increasing sophistication and has a history of cooperating with Iran, which is on the cusp of a nuclear weapons capability and is only held back by the United States with our allies— particularly Israel and our Gulf partners. Each country has different characteristics and considerations. Thus, achieving stability and deterring one country will not necessarily require the same actions as it does with another. There is no mechanistic deterrence formula that applies universally to all nuclear or would-be nuclear powers.
And yet, we must contend with the powers that would weaken the United States, thwart our actions, and undermine the US-led order that—though imperfectly and always only partially—has produced unprecedented peace and prosperity since the end of the Second World War. The United States, though troubled domestically about what the American regime means, must hold the line abroad against external threats. That means the US must prioritize the credibility of our nuclear deterrent, the keystone of our security and that of the Free World.