Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has informed his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that any future agreement on nuclear-arms control between the U.S. and Russia must also include China. This shift to trilateral negotiations is part of the Trump administration’s effort to remake great-power arms control for a new era.
It’s a reasonable approach, which accurately holds that the old bilateral formula has become disconnected from reality. Whether the U.S. can build the leverage necessary to make this new approach succeed — particularly vis-à-vis China — is far less certain.
The Donald Trump administration, in pursuing this strategy, is breaking with two prior arms control paradigms. The Cold War model focused on stabilizing the competition between Moscow and Washington by capping the size of their nuclear arsenals and limiting their pursuit of the most destabilizing systems. The post-Cold War approach focused on cleaning up the strategic residue of the superpower conflict — namely, by reducing U.S. and Russian arsenals.
The most recent such agreement was New Start, signed in 2010. That pact trimmed the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to roughly 1,550 on either side; it limited the U.S. and Russia alike to 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable heavy bombers.
Over time, however, two developments degraded the strategic value of the second paradigm. First, the Russians stopped honoring key agreements, while also carrying out a major nuclear-modernization program. In 2018, the Department of Defense reported that Moscow was violating several nuclear and conventional arms control pacts.
Most important was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1988, which Russia broke by developing and deploying ground-launched missiles of a prohibited range. This left the U.S. as the only country in the world that was effectively constrained from building ground-launched missiles — conventional or nuclear-tipped — with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. After the Barack Obama administration spent several years trying to bring Moscow back into compliance, the Trump administration withdrew from the treaty last year.