George P. Shultz served as secretary of state (1982 to 1989) and treasury secretary (1972 to 1974). William J. Perry, former defense secretary (1994 to 1997), is founder of the William J. Perry Project on the threat of nuclear weapons. Sam Nunn, former Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (1987 to 1995), is co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Albert Einstein is said to have thought that God does not play dice with the universe. Two nations, Russia and the United States, now possess about 90 percent of the world’s inventory of nuclear warheads and have the godlike power to destroy most of humanity and all it has built. Yet we are not gods but flawed human beings. In a very real sense, the presidents of Russia and the United States are stewards for all humanity: They have a duty to act responsibly in current arms-control negotiations. “Get on with it” must be humanity’s instruction to them.
In recent days, there has been a glimmer of hope. Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to extend the life of the nuclear accord known as New START by at least one year beyond its expiration date of Feb. 5, 2021. Russia also agreed to accept the U.S. proposal for a political commitment to “freeze” for one year the total number of nuclear warheads on each side, and to use the time gained to continue negotiations on a new agreement. The Trump administration is seeking to negotiate verification measures for the warhead freeze, which in our experience will be a complex endeavor and take considerable time.
The United States and Russia should seal the deal now to extend New START, because if the last remaining bilateral treaty governing U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces ends in February, the world’s most destructive nuclear arsenals will be unlimited and unverified for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
Despite the significant progress of reducing total nuclear stockpiles by 75 percent since their Cold War heights, the danger of nuclear weapon use is growing. Approximately 14,000 such weapons in the world are spread among nine countries. Many of these arms are on high alert, ready to be launched in only a few minutes, based on the decisions of a handful of fallible humans and their fallible computers. Cyber-interference with command-and-control and the warning systems of any nuclear-armed nation significantly increases the risks of false warnings and nuclear war-by-blunder.
New START must be extended without delay, but it is now threatened by a risky game of chicken being played by Presidents Trump and Putin. Skillful diplomacy between the United States and Russia could extend the life of the agreement by up to five years, as provided for in the treaty, and as Russia offered last year. This would allow precious time for negotiating deeper reductions in the world’s two biggest nuclear arsenals. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has insisted on the inclusion of China, whose military programs are growing rapidly, in future nuclear negotiations. The goal is laudable, but China must be persuaded to join, not bullied by diplomatic stunts and threats. Beijing has made clear that it first needs to see substantial reductions in the stockpiles of both the United States and Russia, which far exceed its own.
The United States, Russia, China and other nuclear powers need time to address the range of destabilizing factors that threaten to turn a conditional peace into an irreparable catastrophe. As a first significant step, China could be invited to join the United States and Russia in restating the Reagan-Gorbachev principle: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
The Trump administration’s pursuit of a freeze on all U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads is also an important goal, but it will take time to develop an agreement with meaningful constraints and verification provisions. Russia has its own list of issues to be addressed in the next treaty. Extending New START would provide essential time for a careful, step-by-step approach to further stockpile reductions, with the ultimate goal of eliminating these weapons as a threat to the world.
With the foundation of New START in place, all of the two countries’ nuclear weapons — including those associated with short-range systems, the so-called tactical nuclear weapons, of which Russia has a larger number — should be subject to limits. But the United States and Russia will have to invest the time and effort necessary to establish new verification methods. Other long-standing issues will need to be discussed in parallel, including ballistic-missile defense; weapons in space; precision-guided, long-range conventional arms; and emerging technologies, including cyber.
Is there reason for hope? Can the world get onto a less dangerous path? We believe the answer is yes, but the United States and Russia must extend New START to preserve what is already working and to gain time for discussions about what can be done next.
Given the dangerously high risk that a nuclear weapon could be used today, and the catastrophic consequences if that happened, extension of New START is a crucial and responsible step.