Rearming Arms Control Should Start with New START Extension

This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.
The Trump administration has articulated a bold vision for arms control, but it has chosen the wrong time and approach to achieve its ambitious goals. China’s growing nuclear arsenal, its intermediate-range missiles, and Russia’s exotic nuclear systems and treaty violations are real threats to U.S. national interests, and arms control agreements can—and should—be important tools in addressing these developments.
Of course, Trump’s abandonment of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) and Open Skies treaties and other agreements raises questions about his commitment to arms control (and multilateral cooperation more broadly), but there is at least a thin veneer of strategic logic in these actions: Russia was cheating and bilateral limitations potentially place the United States at a strategic disadvantage in its strategic competition with both Russia and China. Since arms control is a means to advancing U.S. interests rather than an end in itself, the United States is better off freeing itself of these unilateral constraints.
Despite lingering concerns about whether the logic behind withdrawal from previous agreements will, in fact, create more favorable conditions for the United States, the pressing question going forward is whether and how to use arms control agreements to advance U.S. interests and—in particular—whether to extend the New START nuclear agreement for five additional years. So far, Trump’s gambit to bring Russia and China to the negotiation table to discuss trilateral arms control has failed to achieve any concrete results. Moreover, with New START set to expire in February 2021, there's not enough time to reach a complicated agreement.
The best course of action for the administration now, however, is clear: it should extend New START immediately and without preconditions. Trump should not take this step because he accepts China’s growing arsenal or Russia’s novel nuclear programs. He should take the step because New START extension will buy the time needed for the United States to place itself in a more advantageous strategic position to influence Russian, Chinese, and NATO allies’ behavior in the future.

Strategy and Arms Control

It is unwise to consider arms control outside the broader context of U.S. strategic interaction and national security objectives. At least since Thomas Schelling and Morton Halperin penned their classic, Strategy and Arms Control, arms control has been a key component of U.S. military policy and strategic competition. Arms control deals were a critical aspect of U.S. success during the Cold War, helping to slow the development and deployment of Soviet missiles and allowing the United States time to develop more competitive military technologies and concepts.
Despite Schelling and Halperin’s admonition that “the aims of arms control and the aims of national military strategy should be substantially the same,” U.S. arms control discussions sometimes pit arms control agreements against military tools or, more commonly, limit the scope of U.S. arms control policy to only the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship. To the extent that Russia’s nuclear arsenal constituted the greatest potential threat to U.S. interests, such an approach had much wisdom. Even if such a simplifying assumption once made sense, however, growing Chinese power and ambition made the need to account for broader strategic goals more vital to discussions of strategy and arms control.
To say arms control is a tool of strategy is not to say that this tool is being used strategically. Strategy is an “interactive process of influencing other actors or groups to advance one’s priorities.” In order to advance a nation’s priorities, a strategic plan requires a theory of influence, the flexibility to anticipate and react to the behavior of other strategic actors, and a clear sequencing to guide its approach. Although the Trump administration has wisely broadened the aims of his arms control agenda to include Chinese advances and Russian violations, its current strategic plan fails on all three counts.
Early in the administration, there may have been an argument for testing whether the threat of New START expiration might provide additional leverage for Russian cooperation in bringing China to the negotiating table. Now that it is clear this attempt has failed, the administration is attempting new bilateral negotiations with Russia. A close examination reveals that the Trump administration has failed to articulate a clear vision for its new talks with Russians, overestimated the ways in which New START expiration would limit future military flexibility, and risked ceding precious years during which the United States could develop a more competitive approach. As I describe below, renewing New START now would help mitigate these concerns.

Russia: Distrust and Verify

The U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship is in a much more difficult position today than it was when the New START treaty was first negotiated in 2010. Russia is actively working to undermine international rules and U.S. interests. It has violated its neighbors’ sovereignty and attempted to change borders with force in Ukraine. It is actively working to destabilize the United States and NATO allies through disinformation, cyberattacks, assassinations, and corruption designed to weaken and discredit democratic institutions. Russia has also violated both the INF and Open Skies treaties.
Can the United States trust Russia to be a reliable partner in arms control? No, and it never could. Much has been made of President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 quote that it would be necessary to “trust, but verify” arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. However, his statement of “trust” had more to do with disarming domestic political opponents and signaling to the Soviets he would enter negotiations in good faith than it did with expressing confidence in Soviet compliance. In reality, arms control based on trust with a reliable partner would require no verification or agreement at all.
Despite clear violations of the INF and Open Skies treaties, even Trump’s own Department of State categorizes Russia’s consistent compliance with strategic arms treaties, and New START in particular, as a “success story.” In part, Russia’s compliance is due to the treaty’s robust verification regime: U.S. military and intelligence officials consistently have praised New START as a useful tool for assessing Russia’s arsenal and verifying its strategic nuclear behavior. Without New START verification measures, the United States would have less insight into Russian nuclear forces. As the deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command has noted about the verification regime, “If we were to lose that for any reason in the future, we would have to go look for other ways to fill in the gaps for the things we get from those verifications.” Although the United States may be able to fill in some—though not all—intelligence gaps, it would do so at a higher cost and with less certainty. The end of New START would lead to increased demands for intelligence collection and require the reallocation of national technical means and analysts from other collection priorities such as China, Iran, or North Korea. As a result, verification would be more costly and less certain, and the United States would face more significant opportunity costs and intelligence collection challenges.
The Trump administration has, however, raised valid concerns about the novel and non-strategic nuclear systems that Russia has developed that are not covered by the parameters of New START. Russia has repeatedly stated that negotiations about these systems will stay off the table until the United States is willing to discuss its own missile defense systems, a compromise no U.S. administration has been yet willing to make due to concerns about Iranian and North Korean ballistic missile programs. Nevertheless, no exotic Russia systems are likely to be fully operational until after 2026 when New START would expire for good, and the Trump administration has not explained how or why the treaty’s expiration would curtail Russian development of these exotic systems or why Russia would continue to abide by New START provisions.
One possibility is that Russia would continue to abide by the provisions of New START as a way to avoid triggering an expensive arms race. However, there are compelling reasons why Russia might choose to break out of the treaty limits despite budgetary constraints. Due to procurement timelines and modernization cycles, Russia is far better positioned to take advantage of already hot production lines to initiate a nuclear arms race than the United States, where Pentagon procurement processes are slowly lurching toward a massive but long-term nuclear modernization that will require decades to complete. Moreover, the U.S. technological and industrial base currently is not prepared to rapidly ramp up for this type of competition, potentially placing the United States at an arms disadvantage vis-à-vis Russia for at least the next five to ten years.
On top of these factors, a future Trump or Biden administration could find itself facing severe political and budgetary constraints that would make engaging in an arms race with the Russians—or the Chinese—more difficult. Even the current political consensus in favor of the nuclear modernization program rests on a fragile deal to proceed with arms control negotiations and nuclear modernization simultaneously. As a result, the death of New START in 2021 might allow Russia a head start in a potential arms race—and could make future attempts to achieve national security objectives, through arms control or military strategy, more difficult. Ironically, allowing New START to expire in 2021 would give the United States less flexibility to adapt to the strategic environment—not more. It would remove the stringent verification regime, cede the short-term advantage to Russia in a potential arms race, upset the fragile domestic political consensus in favor of nuclear modernization, and reduce the number of strategic choices available to U.S. leaders.

Is Time on China’s Side?

With a nuclear arsenal less than one-tenth the size of either the United States or Russia, China at present has little incentive to come to the table. Last year, Fu Cong—the director-general of the Department of Arms Control in China’s Foreign Ministry—stated that future negotiations must require the United States to agree to “reduce its arsenal to China’s level” or allow China to “raise its arsenal to the U.S. level.” Moreover, despite wishful thinking by the Trump administration, Russia has not taken any significant steps to pressure China to cooperate and Russian leaders have been clear they view Chinese participation as a U.S. problem. Any successful effort to advance trilateral arms control in the current environment will require a longer-term approach.
China has taken advantage of its position outside the extant arms control regime to improve and expand its nuclear capabilities and to develop new land-based missiles. On its current trajectory, the number of Chinese nuclear warheads is set to at least double within the next decade—while including weak or nonexistent transparency measures. Additionally, China has produced more than 2,200 mid- and long-range land-based missiles that the United States and Russia have been, until recently, prohibited from developing or deploying under the INF treaty.
Although it is unclear whether China could accelerate the expansion of its nuclear and missile programs, a renewed bilateral arms race between the United States and Russia over the next five years could add fuel to Chinese desires to ramp up production to close the nuclear gap—at the same time that U.S. military and intelligence agencies would be struggling to compensate for intelligence gaps created by the loss of the New START verification regime.
Regardless of whether the Trump administration or a future Biden administration extends New START for five years in February 2021, New START will expire no later than 2026. If the United States is serious about creating a more expansive arms control regime that includes China, it would be in a much more favorable position to do so by extending New START immediately and using the next five years to take the necessary steps to compete in a post-New START environment. At a minimum, this time would allow the United States to make progress on modernization and recapitalization of nuclear infrastructure as well as developing additional technical means and analysts to offset intelligence collection that could be necessary beyond 2026. More importantly, however, it would allow the United States to develop a more coherent long-term strategic plan to influence China to agree to transparency and verification measures. Such a plan likely would involve not only investments in U.S. military capabilities that could offset some of China’s growing tactical military advantages in the Asia-Pacific region but also efforts to build on the New START regime to further lower the number of total and deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads. It would also require sustained diplomatic engagement and pressure with NATO allies and U.S. allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region.

Stronger with Allies

Although the Trump administration’s goal is a grand, trilateral arms control agreement, success in such an endeavor will likely depend on cooperation from a much broader cast of nations. As a result, the United States must consider how it will influence allies and partners to support these global efforts.
According to Bob Bell, the former defense adviser at the United States Mission to NATO, a United States commitment to nuclear arms control—and to New START, in particular—was essential to garnering consensus around NATO’s common security approach at the 2018 Brussels Summit. It is true the Trump administration has largely been able to bring allies on board in support of its decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty. However, a post-New START political and strategic environment in Europe could look far different.
There are significant—and sometimes vocal—domestic constituencies in Belgium, Germany, and other allies’ capitals who oppose NATO’s approach to nuclear burden-sharing. If it looks like the United States has failed to put forward serious proposals to manage nuclear risk and either Russian or U.S. nuclear arsenals begin to grow, this domestic opposition is likely to increase and constrain political leaders. Even in the current environment, gaining allied agreement about U.S. strategic force modernization and NATO’s nuclear strategy and posture is challenging. Increased discord is likely to only make future consensus on arms control agreements even more contentious—and less likely to succeed.
Moreover, failure to extend New START in 2021 or to replace it in 2026 would mark a major setback for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)—perhaps the largest such setback since the NPT was signed in 1970. While there is legitimate debate about whether and how much the NPT itself has constrained nuclear proliferation, there is little doubt nonnuclear nations are already frustrated with the pace of nuclear arms reductions by Russia and the United States that is required under the NPT. Without some action on arms control, these nations would further question U.S. moral leadership on arms control, making security competition and future nonproliferation efforts more challenging.


As the Trump administration contemplates whether to extend the New START treaty, the United States finds itself in a challenging strategic position—with Russia and China both exploiting U.S. vulnerabilities in some areas and closing the gap between their capabilities and U.S. capabilities in others. Yet these challenges are exactly why the United States must renew the New START treaty. While it has limitations and there are legitimate arms control concerns not covered by its terms, extension of New START is a necessary first step to regaining the U.S. strategic advantage that has been lost through years of distraction in the Middle East and North Africa.
New START extension alone is not sufficient for the United States to compete successfully with Russia and China. Nevertheless, it can provide the time and conditions for the United States to develop a realistic and coherent strategic plan to advance U.S. interests in 2026 and beyond. Bringing China into a trilateral arms control deal—and even keeping Russia in, and in compliance with, a long-term strategic arms control agreement—will not be easy. But if the United States uses the next five years wisely, it can put itself in a much more favorable position to engage in great power competition with Russia and China.
The Trump administration should immediately extend New START until 2026, not in spite of the agreement’s failures to account for exotic Russian nuclear systems and China’s growing nuclear and missile arsenals, but because New START will help the United States set the pace and timing of strategic competition to deal with them. Arms control is a tool of strategy, not an end in itself. But there should be little doubt: arms control—in the form of New START extension—is the right tool to use now so the United States and its allies will be best positioned to carry out the Trump administration’s ambitious agenda for great power competition with Russia and China.
Jim Golby is a senior fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin, the co-host of the “Thank You For Your Service” podcast, and an adjunct senior fellow at CNAS and the U.S. Studies Center.
CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).