White House meeting about New START hosted by Joe Biden
President Barack Obama attends a New START Treaty meeting hosted by Vice President Joe Biden in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Nov. 18, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

We should pay atten­tion to Pres­i­dent Joe Biden’s deft and swift move to re-enter the New START (Strate­gic Arms Reduc­tion Treaty) agree­ment with the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion and extend its imple­men­ta­tion through Feb­ru­ary 4th, 2026.

Biden’s first weeks as Pres­i­dent fore­shad­ow an intense and inten­tion­al pur­suit of diplo­ma­cy to re-enter treaties, renew alliances, and man­age part­ner­ships to tack­le threats to the safe­ty and secu­ri­ty of all Americans.

Yes, it may be dif­fi­cult to focus on nuclear weapons and nuclear war when we’re fight­ing right now to save our democ­ra­cy against domes­tic extrem­ists and per­sis­tent attacks on vot­ing rights and elections.

It’s even hard­er to look ahead to the next decade of threats from cyber­at­tacks, cli­mate dis­as­ters, and home­grown ter­ror­ism – not to men­tion the risks of nuclear war — when the nov­el coro­n­avirus has killed more than 500,000 Amer­i­cans and 2.5 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide in the past twelve months.

But we should nev­er take our future secu­ri­ty for grant­ed when thou­sands of nuclear war­heads are deployed right here in Wash­ing­ton State and are top tar­gets of Russ­ian strate­gic nuclear forces. Cur­rent U.S. bud­get pro­pos­als include mas­sive invest­ments in a mod­ern­ized U.S. nuclear tri­ad. So it’s clear: we still need nuclear force reduc­tion treaties to reduce the risks of nuclear disasters.

What is New START?

For­mer Unit­ed States Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma and for­mer Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Dmit­ry Medvedev signed New START on April 8, 2010.

Fol­low­ing its rat­i­fi­ca­tion by the U.S. Sen­ate and the Fed­er­al Assem­bly of Rus­sia, the treaty went into force on Feb­ru­ary 5, 2011.

It’s impor­tant to know a few things about this piv­otal nuclear treaty between the Unit­ed States and Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion, which NPI strong­ly supports:

  • It’s not real­ly “new” – it is a con­tin­u­a­tion of the orig­i­nal START treaty in force from 1994 through 2009.
  • New START was orig­i­nal­ly in force from 2011 to 2018
  • Under New START, the Unit­ed States and Rus­sia met the treaty’s lim­its on strate­gic offen­sive weapons and deliv­ery by the treaty dead­line of Feb­ru­ary 5th, 2018.

In 2020, Don­ald Trump and his entourage sig­naled that Unit­ed States agree­ment to an exten­sion would depend on includ­ing Chi­na in the nego­ti­a­tions.

New START ensures that the Unit­ed States and Rus­sia con­tin­ue to imple­ment nuclear force reduc­tions nego­ti­at­ed under the orig­i­nal START agreement.

Arguably the most his­toric nuclear arms reduc­tion agree­ment ever nego­ti­at­ed, START went into force in 1994 and with­in sev­en years Amer­i­cans and Rus­sians had destroyed near­ly eighty per­cent of their strate­gic nuclear weapons.

The treaty barred its sig­na­to­ries from deploy­ing more than 6,000 nuclear war­heads on a total of 1,600 inter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles (land-based and sea-based com­bined) and long-range bombers.

Under New START, the treaty’s mon­i­tor­ing and ver­i­fi­ca­tion pro­to­cols will ensure con­tin­ued com­pli­ance through the Feb­ru­ary 2026 exten­sion just adopt­ed by U.S. Pres­i­dent Biden and Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Putin.

Accord­ing to the U.S. State Depart­ment:

Both the Unit­ed States and the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion met the cen­tral lim­its of the New START Treaty by Feb­ru­ary 5, 2018 and have stayed at or below them ever since. Extend­ing New START ensures we will have ver­i­fi­able lim­its on the main­stay of Russ­ian nuclear weapons that can reach the U.S. home­land for the next five years. As of the most recent data exchange on Sep­tem­ber 1, 2020, the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion declared 1,447 deployed strate­gic war­heads. The Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion has the capac­i­ty to deploy many more than 1,550 war­heads on its mod­ern­ized ICBMs and SLBMs, as well as heavy bombers, but is con­strained from doing so by New START.

The same restric­tions apply to U.S. land- and sea-based bal­lis­tic mis­siles and nuclear war­heads. Right here in Wash­ing­ton State, the Ohio-class strate­gic bal­lis­tic mis­sile sub­marines (SSBN) pro­vide a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the sea-based leg of the U.S. nuclear tri­ad. Each SSBN was pre­vi­ous­ly armed with up to twen­ty-four Tri­dent II sub­­­ma­rine-launched bal­lis­tic mis­siles.

As part of the New START treaty, four tubes on each SSBN have been deac­ti­vat­ed, leav­ing each ship with 20 tubes for bal­lis­tic mis­siles with nuclear warheads.

These mon­i­tor­ing and ver­i­fi­ca­tion regimes are cen­tral to the whole “trust but ver­i­fy” com­po­nent of treaties requir­ing per­ma­nent destruc­tion of weapons and their means of deliv­ery. With­out the New START Treaty exten­sion, we would have no abil­i­ty to ver­i­fy con­tin­ued Russ­ian com­pli­ance with these mis­sile and nuclear war­head lim­its. Nor would the Rus­sians have the abil­i­ty to ver­i­fy Amer­i­cans are still hon­or­ing the deal. More­over, the treaty pro­vides the mech­a­nisms for both par­ties to address con­cerns about poten­tial or actu­al non-com­­pli­ance and to take actions to rem­e­dy vio­la­tions should they be confirmed.

Any time we suc­ceed in destroy­ing weapons – nuclear, chem­i­cal, bio­log­i­cal, con­ven­tion­al, long-range or short-range, bat­tle­field or inter­con­ti­nen­tal – we’ve reduced risks of cat­a­stroph­ic loss. That’s a good thing for all of us.

How will nonproliferation diplo­ma­cy influ­ence twenty-first century negotiations?

Here’s why Biden’s deci­sion to re-enter and extend New START mat­ters to this century’s diplo­mat­ic challenges:

  • It reaf­firms the essen­tial respon­si­bil­i­ty of all par­ties to con­sent to equal, trans­par­ent, and account­able on-site mon­i­tor­ing and ver­i­fi­ca­tion of weapons destruction.
  • It estab­lish­es the legit­i­ma­cy of using sim­i­lar intru­sive inspec­tion regimes for future treaties.
  • It com­mits to the prin­ci­ple of enter­ing treaties to man­age risks and reduce threats to people.

It’s time for diplo­ma­cy to take cen­ter stage again.

As one of the intel­li­gence ana­lysts and sub­se­quent­ly fed­er­al gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors who helped U.S. nation­al secu­ri­ty and intel­li­gence offi­cials define and imple­ment nuclear treaty mon­i­tor­ing and ver­i­fi­ca­tion regimes for START, the Inter­me­di­ate Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987), and the nev­er-rat­i­fied Com­pre­hen­sive Test Ban Treaty (1996), I had a fig­u­ra­tive front-row seat to high-stakes diplomacy.

I saw what worked (and didn’t work) and I helped nego­tia­tors find solu­tions to com­ply with the most com­plex and con­tentious treaty terms and conditions.

From the Kennedy to Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tions, pres­i­dents have used diplo­ma­cy as a means to pre­vent con­flict, reduce esca­la­tion of con­flict, or ulti­mate­ly to resolve con­flict. Going after ter­ror­ists and regimes har­bor­ing ter­ror­ists dom­i­nat­ed the U.S. nation­al secu­ri­ty agen­da dur­ing the Bush II and Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tions, yet both of these pres­i­dents sus­tained America’s com­mit­ment to treaties nego­ti­at­ed by pre­de­ces­sors while also nego­ti­at­ing new treaties and diplo­mat­ic agreements.

Then came Don­ald Trump.

Through­out his four-year term, Trump withdrew.

He was the great unrav­el­er, pulling Amer­i­ca out of treaties, inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions, and mul­ti­lat­er­al part­ner­ships. Four years of dis­miss­ing sea­soned diplo­mats and den­i­grat­ing the val­ue of diplo­ma­cy under­mined the core mis­sion of diplo­mats in embassies and con­sulates around the world. Pre­dictably, Amer­i­cans lost touch with what diplo­ma­cy looks like and what it can accom­plish. And the rest of the world could no longer trust Amer­i­ca to hon­or its commitments.

There are so many chal­lenges ahead for the new administration.

In the wake of the Trump mob’s assault on the Capi­tol, the secu­ri­ty threats are per­sis­tent and con­cur­rent: Ter­ror­ism. Cli­mate dam­age. Pan­demics. Cyber­at­tacks. Geno­cide. Human traf­fick­ing. Civ­il war. Nuclear threats.

When liv­ing through tur­bu­lent times, diplo­ma­cy mat­ters more than ever.

In Pres­i­dent Biden’s first thir­ty days, diplo­mats around the world had Amer­i­cans back to work at sev­er­al nego­ti­at­ing tables:

  • New START
  • Paris Cli­mate Accord
  • Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Action with Iran
  • World Health Organization
  • UN Human Rights Council

Diplo­ma­cy is mak­ing a come­back with the Biden Admin­is­tra­tion. We can­not under­es­ti­mate the sheer mag­ni­tude of the chal­lenges we col­lec­tive­ly face.

Impor­tant­ly, when asked how the admin­is­tra­tion would jug­gle the pan­dem­ic, eco­nom­ic crises, cli­mate threats, domes­tic extrem­ism and more, Kamala Har­ris said: “We know how to mul­ti-task.” Diplo­mats are born mul­ti-taskers. They will make diplo­ma­cy work for all of us. I’m cheer­ing for all of them.

About the author

Gael Tarleton is an NPI Advisory Councilmember and former Washington State Representative who led two Russian subsidiaries during the 1990s and lserved as a senior defense intelligence analyst on Soviet strategic nuclear programs at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency from 1981-1990. She served on NPI's board from its inception through 2021.

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