By Bryce Farabaugh
The future of nuclear arms control is uncertain. On February 3, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the 5-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the agreement between the United States and Russia that limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads and launchers each state may possess. The extension was a welcome relief for those concerned about the fate of the last remaining pillar of the global arms control regime, a system intended to reduce nuclear risks by improving insight, verification, and trust between the two states with the largest nuclear arsenals in the world. As the treaty’s survival was anything but certain under the previous administration, proponents of its extension are celebrating this victory, but such celebrations are bound to be short-lived as looming arms control challenges come into focus. U.S. policymakers are increasingly wary of China’s military capabilities, including its modernizing nuclear arsenal, and both supporters and skeptics of the New START extension concede future arms control agreements will likely need to include China in some capacity. Indeed, if meaningful arms control agreements are going to continue to serve the national security interests of the United States by reducing global nuclear risks in an evolving security environment, it’s helpful to interrogate arguments that were made against the New START extension to explore whether such arguments are likely to be obstacles in future arms control dialogues.
New START is largely a product of the post-Cold War thaw in relations between the United States and Russia. In the 1990’s, as the dust settled from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the United States came to terms with “the unipolar moment,” global nuclear stockpiles were reduced while cooperation on nuclear issues generally increased between the two states. Cooperative arms control measures between the United States, the former Soviet Union, and others were achieved during this period: the Open Skies Treaty improved confidence and security in Europe, Soviet nuclear weapons were successfully removed from Ukraine, and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) created an international network capable of monitoring nuclear detonations (among other successes) While there have undoubtedly been setbacks including the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2001 and the failure of the US Senate to ratify the CTBT, for a while it appeared increasingly likely that intense nuclear competition between the US and its rivals was a thing of the past.
Indeed, the crown jewel of the post-Cold War arms control agreements, New START, entered into force in 2011 and was viewed by many as a major achievement in US-Russian relations. Set to expire in February 2021, the United States and Russia appeared unable to come to an agreement on its extension. This fact was somewhat surprising, as New START was widely popular among US nuclear experts. Arms controllers praise its limits on deployed strategic warheads, while counterforce advocates value the verification and monitoring protocols that provide visibility into Russian military capabilities. Likewise, leaders at the highest levels of the Russian Government publicly stated their desire to extend the agreement without preconditions. The reticence by the US to extend New START had been attributed to a host of explanations, but one complaint from US negotiators surfaced repeatedly: the absence of China from the treaty.
The US’s insistence on including China in New START and related strategic dialogues is puzzling for several reasons. First, China is believed to have a much smaller arsenal than either the US or Russia, meaning its number of strategic warheads is already far below the limits of the agreement. Second, China was not party to the original negotiation and had few (if any) incentives to join. And third, Chinese security concerns are very different than the decades-long nuclear rivalry between the US and Russia, etc. This begs the question then that if the US possesses nuclear superiority over China, both quantitative and qualitative, why does it continue to behave as if China is a significant and growing nuclear threat that must be controlled at all costs?
One answer may lie in how humans process information. US policymakers are often students of history and thus rely on historical analogies for interpreting new events. Additionally, behavioral scientists have shown that humans, in general, often rely on information that they believe is relevant for a situation even when the circumstances, parties involved, stakes, and other conditions are quite different, resulting in cognitive biases that can impact decision-making. In the context of US-China cooperation/competition over nuclear weapons issues, these two facts suggest policymakers may be heavily inclined to view the current situation as a replay of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. This could lead policymakers to mistakenly pursue policies that previously worked for the US despite the drastically different circumstances of the current situation.
This overreliance on the flawed Cold War analogy between the US and China can be seen in statements by senior US officials responsible for overseeing nuclear weapons policy. For example, in May 2020, US Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control, Marshall Billingslea, stated that the US is prepared to spend Russia and China “into oblivion” in order to win a new nuclear arms race. Billingslea had also reportedly called Chinese efforts to modernize its nuclear forces “a ‘highly alarming effort’ to gain parity with the far larger arsenals that Russia and the United States have kept for decades.” These concerns evoke memories of the infamous “missile gap” argument that plagued American political discourse beginning in the 1950’s , a myth that still echoes in comments like those of Billingslea and other former officials
In addition to these tired Cold War analogies, theoretical arguments about the structure of the international system may alternatively explain increasing nuclear competition between the United States and China. Under this framework, states are constantly competing with one another in order to achieve national goals, whether supremacy in the international system or narrower goals like regional security or relative gains vis-à-vis competitor states. Nuclear competition in this scenario is largely inevitable as states constantly strive to improve military capabilities. Recent scholars have argued why maintaining a robust nuclear arsenal is important to deter nuclear conflict with a rising power like China or, in the event of a crisis, possess the ability to terminate the conflict on terms favorable to the US. Matthew Kroenig argues maintaining “nuclear superiority” can provide significant utility for the US should such a crisis or conflict occur. Keir Lieber and Daryl Press similarly argue that states may be able to escape nuclear “stalemate,” which suggests that while the US currently maintains a significant nuclear advantage over China, technological advances may erode this advantage and thus some form of nuclear competition is inevitable. Additionally, some US Government intelligence agencies have contributed to this perceived “inevitability” by promulgating largely-unrealistic projections of the growth of the Chinese nuclear arsenal, which further reinforces the US-China nuclear competition framing.
Policymakers’ overreliance on Cold War logic and deterministic structural forces may make the future of arms control look bleak, but students of history would be wise to remember that even during the darkest days of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union were able to find common ground to reduce risks and avoid catastrophe. The unfolding competitive relationship between Washington and Beijing shouldn’t be viewed through a strictly zero-sum lens, and cooperation between the United States and China on security issues with global implications must be pursued when possible. With New START officially expiring on February 5, 2026, the clock is ticking; now is the time to get creative and imagine how a new world of arms control can deal with emerging nuclear risks that threaten to erase the progress previous generations worked so hard to achieve.
Bryce Farabaugh is a master’s student at the University of Chicago’s Committee on International Relations and an external representative for Strife. You can follow him on Twitter @brycefarabaugh