More US-Russia Nuclear Talks & The Future of Arms Control

By Christine Parthemore

The next meeting of U.S. and Russian officials for nuclear strategic stability began August 16th and wraps today in Vienna. First reported by Russian media, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control, Ambassador Marshall Billingslea, followed last Friday with a tweet stating that the United States was “sending 1 of the highest level delegations ever” to Austria for the session.

This comes at a time of what may be an important shift is taking place: there appears to be increasing bipartisan convergence that the future of arms control should look different from the past—in particular, in building beyond the bilateral US-Russia (and prior Soviet-US) paradigm. 

The CSR and its Nolan Center team have been advocating for getting creative in designing future arms control concepts for years, including expanding the parties at the table, and we’ve seen that conversation spreading. The current US administration took up this advice from its start, albeit via heavy-handed and destructive approaches (in particular dismantling important treaties we had in place) that served to alienate and break trust with countries with whom we need to cooperate in reducing nuclear risks. 

Yet this forward-looking, basic idea is also starting to take hold across party lines, even if through very different approaches. A noteworthy shift came in late July, when the newly-released Democratic Party Platform includedd the following language:

“Just as was the case during the height of the Cold War, it’s in our interest to work with Russia to verifiably limit and reduce our nuclear stockpiles. We will build on this foundation to negotiate arms control agreements that reflect the emergence of new players like China, capture new technologies, and move the world back from the nuclear precipice” (emphasis added). 

As a contribution to creating greater unity in America, let’s recognize this emerging bipartisan common ground. Even if major disagreements remain regarding how to proceed, agreement across party lines that future arms control agreements should include new players and new technologies is an important starting point for returning the nation to a path of leadership in strong, enduring nuclear threat reduction measures. 

Such future agreements should make room for many other nations, including other nuclear weapons-possessing states and non-nuclear states—not just China, which is a declared focus of both parties. And while capturing new technologies is important, it will be equally important to shape future agreements in specific-enough ways that progress on reducing nuclear weapons threats does not get prohibitively entangled with non-nuclear concerns (as important as those may be). 

My colleagues and I have written and spoken extensively on guiding principles we think should shape new arms control measures. These include prioritizing:

  • Nuclear weapons most likely to lead to miscalculations, especially those that carry significant ambiguity if countries may not know if specific weapons hold conventional or nuclear warheads.
  • Nuclear weapons designed to be politically usable in conflict particularly in areas outside the territory of either nuclear state in a conflict. New nuclear capabilities being designed for “lower yield” for this reason are of urgent concern, including due to how incredibly misleading this label is compared to the world-changing devastation such nuclear weapons would cause.
  • Nuclear weapons most likely to be delegated for employment decisions below the highest political level (e.g., battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons).

We are looking forward to perhaps seeing this framework—prioritizing cuts or elimination of the weapons most likely to lead to nuclear war—being adopted by both parties in the future, returning to the long bipartisan tradition of relative agreement on the security benefits of arms control.


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