Feigning Interest in Arms Control To Kill New START

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

See if you can spot the flaw in the Trump administration’s new arms control initiative:

President Trump is sending a high-level delegation to meet with Russian counterparts in Geneva this week to pursue an arms control treaty that for the first time would cap the nuclear arsenals of not just the two largest powers, but China as well.

Mr. Trump broached the idea with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia during their meeting in Osaka, Japan, last month and has also signaled his ambition for such a three-way accord to President Xi Jinping of China, administration officials said on Monday. Russia has expressed interest; China has not [bold mine-DL].

China has no interest in being part of a trilateral arms control agreement. Their nuclear arsenal is much smaller, and they would have no reason to take part in negotiations that have traditionally been between the U.S. and Russia. China also sees the administration’s decision to quit the INF Treaty as an additional reason not to negotiate with the US:

Chinese officials have categorically rejected the idea regardless of how it is negotiated, citing, among other things, Mr. Trump’s decision to pull out of the I.N.F. treaty as evidence that the United States cannot be trusted.

“As to the trilateral negotiations on arms control, China’s position is clear-cut,” Lu Kang, the spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said in May. “The premise and basis for trilateral arms control negotiations do not exist at all, and China will never participate in them.”

You couldn’t ask for a more definitive rejection than that. Instead of pushing on this closed and locked door, the Trump administration ought to be engaging with Russia on an extension of New START, but they have made no effort to do this. The article notes the administration’s refusal to extend the treaty:

Mr. Trump’s team has also signaled that it is not interested in renewing the New Start treaty of 2010 that expires in 19 months despite Russia’s entreaties to keep it.

If Bolton gets his way, New START will die with nothing to replace it. I assume that is the real point of this bizarre proposal to include China in a new treaty. They must know that China would never agree to the idea, and so they pretend to want a trilateral treaty so that they can distract from the fact that they’re killing New START with neglect. The administration’s position that U.S.-Russian bilateral arms control agreements are “antiquated” is just a weak excuse to let the last major arms control treaty die for no good reason. Even if it were possible to negotiate other treaties that established limits on the arsenals of other nuclear weapons states, there is no justification for letting the last arms reduction treaty with Russia fall by the wayside.

Dismantling one of the last remaining pieces of the architecture of arms control will be bad for U.S.-Russian relations, it will introduce greater instability in those relations, and it threatens the world with a new nuclear arms race. The administration’s supposed desire for a “better” arms control treaty is just as phony as its desire for a “better” nuclear deal with Iran, and in both cases the administration is feigning interest in a more comprehensive agreement in order to justify killing the existing ones.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.