A New START to the Cold War?
So, Putin is terminating New START. Here’s a glimpse at what that might mean for US-Russian relations, US allies, and American defense spending.
You have to go back to 1969 to get a feel for life without bilateral arms control between DC and Moscow (although the ABM Treaty wasn’t signed until 1972, the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks began in 1969). The 1950s and 1960s saw absurd spending on the US nuclear arsenal, which grew from 299 warheads in 1950 to its peak in 1967 at 31,255. Spending was so out of control that we literally didn’t even know how much money went into the US nuclear program. And no one would sit down to try to figure that out until the late 1990s. And while critics of arms control love to harangue those advocating arms control for a rose-tinted view of the world and naively thinking you can put the genie back in the bottle, these first agreements with the Soviet Union first and foremost allowed the United States to reduce spending while saving face. As Schelling once wrote, saving face is one of the few things worth fighting for, so presumably, saving face is also one of the few things worth appearing dovish for. Further, as has recently been demonstrated, arms control with the Soviet Union also allowed us to compete more efficiently during the Cold War.
And yet, since 1969, arms control has been popular among their publics and with allies. First, Russians and Americans have both historically supported arms control. Even as relations between the two countries soured in the 2010s, support remained high. The INF Treaty demonstrated the role these agreements could play in assuaging anti-nuclear sentiment in the United States and allied states in Europe. This proved critical at a time when many allies doubted that the US was a responsible actor. More recently, a recent task force aimed at generating ways to rebuild US credibility with its allies recommended renewed commitment to arms control, both bilateral as well as looking for ways to draw China into an agreement.
So are we doomed to compete with Russia? Not if we can learn two lessons from the Cold War. One, don’t stress about the possibility that Moscow could outpace us on the nuclear front. Two, stop assuming we can’t beat the Russians conventionally. On the first point, it’s hard to imagine Russia in the immediate future having the capital to produce a missile gap we so feared during the Cold War. Russia’s post-Soviet nuclear modernization, which has taken decades with many starts and stops on the way, is only, as of a year ago, about 90% done. And this is all within the limits of New START. The Russian economy might not be hurting as bad as we would have liked under sanctions, but it’s still in no condition for an arms race.
On the second point, there’s some hope that after Russia’s poor performance in what many assumed would be a short victory, we won’t fall back into the trap of perennial predictions that the US would be powerless to stop an invasion of NATO Europe. That thinking, in part, drove our reckless spending in the 1950s and 1960s as we determined our only choice was reliance on nuclear deterrence. As recently as 2021, some fell back into the trap of predicting that the US couldn’t keep Russia from a land grab on NATO’s eastern front. Hopefully, seeing the Russian military in action in Ukraine will dispel that myth completely, and the US can focus on helping to strengthen Europe conventionally. After all, arms races were a reckless waste of money in the 1960s and the 1980s, and they will be so today as well.