In the early 1990s, the US and the USSR signed the first of a series of treaties designed to limit the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Sharon Weiner joins us to discuss the many nuclear weapons treaties between the US and Russia—the world's two largest nuclear powers.
Professor Weiner explains the significance of START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) signed in 1991 (2:14). She also breaks down why START II was signed in 1993, SORT (Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty) was signed in 2002, and New START was signed in April of 2010 (4:06) as well as whether all these treaties were successful (6:11).
Professor Weiner describes what might have happened if President Biden and President Putin did not agree to extend New START before its expiration date in February 2021 (10:04). Now that the two leaders have agreed to extend the treaty for five years—the maximum allowed in its text—Professor Weiner discusses what might occur in the next few years as New START nears expiration (15:54) and shares why the nuclear arsenal is a mistake waiting to happen (17:57).
What does the future hold for nuclear relations between the US, Russia, and other countries around the world (21:53)? Why do nuclear weapons pose not only a physical danger but also a danger to global cooperation (23:27)? Professor Weiner answers these questions and shares if she thinks the US, Russia, and other nuclear powers would ever agree to abolish the use of nuclear weapons (25:52).
During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Weiner tells us the first five things the Biden administration should do to achieve nuclear disarmament (13:15).
0:07 Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters. Since August 6, 1945 when the US dropped the world's first deployed atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the world has lived in the shadow of the nuclear threat. Those who grew up during the Cold War were told constantly that the US and the Soviet Union possessed enough weapons to destroy each other. This mutually assured destruction was supposed to act as the ultimate deterrent.
0:38 KS: In the early 1990s however, the US and the USSR signed the first of a series of treaties designed to limit the threat posed by nuclear weapons. These agreements, together with India and Pakistan joining the list of nuclear powers in 1998, changed the nature of the global threats posed by nuclear weapons. Today, we're talking about nuclear weapons treaties between the world's two largest nuclear powers, the US and Russia. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Sharon Weiner.
1:08 KS: Sharon is a professor in the School of International Service. From August 2014 through February 2017, Sharon was a program examiner with the National Security Division of the White House Office of Management and Budget, where she had responsibility for budget and policy issues related to nuclear weapons and non-proliferation. She's also worked for the Armed Services Committee of the US House of Representatives. Sharon wrote a book titled, Our Own Worst Enemy, that explored the role of partisan politics and the success and failure of US cooperative non-proliferation programs with the former Soviet Union. So I can think of no one better to explain what is the what, when it comes to nuclear weapons and the treaties that govern them. Sharon, thanks for joining Big World.
1:52 Sharon Weiner: My pleasure. Happy to be here. Thanks for asking.
1:55 KS: Sharon, this is the type of question that makes me a little sad, but it's inevitable, I guess, because I turned around and all of a sudden I was middle-aged, but for listeners who were not yet alive in 1991, when the original START which is now called START I, was signed, would you explain what that treaty was and why it was so significant?
2:14 SW: Sure. So the key here is the year obviously, 1991. So START really began the process of the US and the Soviet Union, and soon Russia, trying to figure out what are we going to do with these enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons that we built up during the Cold War? 1991, Cold War's over, it's not quite at that point clear what's going to come after, if it's going to be a cold peace or a warm friendship. So this was part of the conversation. But it's important to realize that the immediate goal was to say, "We have too many nuclear weapons. We don't need this many."
2:58 SW: So at the end of the Cold War, the US had about 21,000 nuclear warheads. The Russians had more, it was closer to about 33,000, and START I limited the US and Russia, they had different limits, the US was eight and a half thousand warheads, Russia, six and a half thousand. And all of the others were dismantled, launch facilities destroyed. So this was all part of a conversation about, the Cold War is over, we don't need to rely on nuclear weapons as much, and it's dangerous to have so many. So let's get rid of some of them.
3:33 KS: Now START I's final implementation in late 2001 resulted in the removal of about 80 percent of all strategic nuclear weapons then in existence. Some of the numbers you were throwing out are really scary when you hear them now. There was also the START II treaty that was signed in 1993, the SORT treaty signed in 2002, and almost 20 years after START I, New START was signed in April of 2010. And what were the motivations of all of these different treaties after START I?
4:06 SW: So in some cases they were all very similar and part of a similar conversation. So START was really the shift in arms control. Like I said, trying to decide, "What are we going to do with nuclear weapons after the Cold War?" And really during a timeframe when it looked as if the US and Russia might actually be friends, right? If you think back, I know both of us can think back to that time. There were thoughts about even conversations about Russia maybe they would want to join NATO, right?
4:38 KS: Oh, yeah.
4:39 SW: Yeah, it wasn't clear. And so the goal of START was to reduce nuclear arsenals in a way that reinforced cooperation. But as we get further away from 1991 and closer to the present time, US-Russian relations go up, they go down. But the goal of all these treaties is to still try and figure out how can we ensure national security? How can we ensure a sort of stability between you and Russia, the US and Russia, whatever the relationship is, and still reduce nuclear weapons. Because the realization was, if we're going to have conflict, we would really like to keep that conflict as far away from nuclear war as possible.
5:19 SW: So President Bush and Putin, for example, this meant going from 6,000 nuclear weapons to 1,500 warheads each, about that. Precise numbers in arms control take on a whole new meaning. There are different rules about what counts as a warhead and other things. Of course, at the time, even when Bush and Putin were reducing, there were lots of people who argued you could actually even go further without hurting national security, but it's been a process of dialogue, trying to figure out what do we do with these nuclear weapons under the presumption that there should be fewer of them because they're dangerous.
5:58 KS: So ultimately, would you say that SORT or New START have been more effective in controlling the size of US-Russian arsenals than START I was, did they work?
6:11 SW: I think they were all part of a similar process. And this is about reducing the salience of nuclear weapons after the Cold War and in the US-Russian relationship. So were they successful? Certainly the trajectory was downward. Were they successful in figuring out how the United States and Russia could get along without nuclear weapons? Well, not really. And actually New START was a big shift, and I would say it was a big shift in the opposite direction, right?
6:47 SW: So New START, signed in April 2010 by Putin and President Obama, and it commits both the US and Russia to further reductions to about 1,500 nuclear warheads each, but in the United States to get Congress to agree to ratify this treaty, President Obama had to make a deal with especially the Republican members of Congress. In return for agreeing to nuclear reductions under New START, he agreed to a very expensive modernization of the entire US nuclear arsenal. And so this really does two things. One, it reverses the trend of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, by making it clear that the US intends to maintain them in its arsenal as a major component for at least the next 60 years.
7:38 SW: And the other thing it does is it imposes a huge financial burden on the United States. I mean, the cost of this modernization effort is estimated, oh, I think the last estimate was $1.7 trillion, but I can tell you as someone who used to focus a whole lot on budgets, it's probably going to cost a lot more.
7:56 KS: Are there any safety benefits for the US in making that decision to modernize the nuclear weapons arsenal? Were there any types of infrastructure that needed that work?
8:08 SW: So like everything, this is really a question of politics. So I could answer both yes and no. But the first thing to keep in mind is there was no danger that some nuclear weapon was so unsafe it was going to accidentally explode or not work. They were fine. Okay.
8:28 SW: There are lots of checks to make sure everything is in place, it's robust, there are no issues. As a matter of fact, I would say the number one safety concern is that the president would be told there were incoming nuclear weapons and would launch a response only to be told two minutes later, "Uh oh, my bad. We made a mistake." Oh, let's see, one case was the radar detected the sun rising and mistook it for incoming ICBM's. That was the danger. Not that there was some scientific or other problem in the nuclear arsenal. Now, some people will argue yes, but we needed them to work a little better or there were changes in the international system and we needed to kind of tweak them to do different things. And that debate really isn't about nuclear weapons, it's about what you need for your security.
9:17 KS: Sharon, New START was set to expire on February 5, and I think one of the outcomes from the entire world being incredibly distracted by the pandemic, rightly so, and the US being incredibly distracted by its own brand of politics currently, meant that in reality, very few people even were aware that this was a thing. We know that President Biden and President Putin formerly agreed to extend New START on January 26, avoiding a renewed arms race just a few weeks before the treaty was set to expire. Speculating a bit, what do you think might've happened if the treaty had lapsed?
10:04 SW: The answer really depends in large part on who was in charge, because nuclear weapons are as much about perception as they are about facts on the ground, right? Or arms control treaties. So there have always been factions in the US that think more nuclear weapons or new nuclear weapons are important for US security. And those groups actually found a sympathetic ear in the White House under the previous US president. President Biden is less sympathetic. This isn't to suggest that he doesn't think nuclear weapons are important for US security, it's just like President Obama before him, he thinks we'll be safer if we reduced reliance on those nuclear weapons. And so New START is really the benchmark for this agreement.
10:50 SW: And it's also important to keep in mind that there's sort of a reciprocal relationship going on here, right? Of the US and Russia blaming each other for enhancing the threat. So there used to be this treaty, one of the ones we haven't talked about is the ABM treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. So this was a treaty that limited the US and Russia, it limited the development of ballistic missile defense systems to cover your country. And the rationale at the time was, you know what, this isn't really possible to do, they're really expensive, and if we do this, it might make the US, at the time Soviet, relationship more unstable.
11:32 SW: Flash-forward, President George W. Bush withdraws the US from this treaty and says no. It becomes US policy to develop these systems, even though I would add here, there's strong scientific consensus that they could never stop incoming nuclear weapons. And so Russia looks at these systems and says, "Hm, the United States is trying to destabilize deterrence by putting itself under a protective shield. We need to develop something to get around that shield."
12:03 SW: So they start to modernize. They start to develop new types of nuclear weapons. And so this then creates space in the US for people who have always been in favor of more nuclear weapons and different types to say, "Oh, the Russians are modernizing. We need to do the same thing, we need to develop more." So had New START lapsed, this would have given I think, more political space for those forces to make an argument that would have led to either more of the same types of nuclear weapons, or perhaps more investment in different types or new nuclear weapons.
12:44 KS: Sharon Weiner, it's time to Take Five. This is when you, our guest, get to blue sky it and change the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that could change the world for the better. With COVID and domestic terrorism, the Biden administration unquestionably has its hands full, but nuclear weapons can never be allowed to fall down the list of priorities for a US president. So what are the first five things the Biden administration should do to achieve nuclear disarmament?
13:15 SW: Okay. Number one. Well, it's already doing. It's starting to talk with Russia, starting to engage with Iran. Let's hope they also engage with North Korea to talk about how to solve our differences and control or possibly eliminate our reliance on nuclear weapons. Okay.
13:31 SW: Arms control is not about the numbers. It's about having a conversation about what security means and cooperating. Number two, unilaterally reduce the US arsenal to 1000 nuclear weapons. That's below New START by about a third. Under Obama, as part of the Obama review, the military determined that the US would be just fine with 1000 nuclear weapons, no problems with national security, right? Fine. Let's do it then.
13:58 SW: Number three, pause nuclear modernization. And especially the modernization of ICBM's. I mean, recovery from COVID alone is going to be a massive bill. We don't need to spend 1.5 trillion dollars on nuclear modernization. If we go through this modernization plan, we are assuming that the US need for nuclear weapons in the arsenal will be the same in 60 years as it is today. Do we need to invest now in making sure that nuclear weapons, the same number, are going to be necessary and are going to be there? Let's instead try and figure out a path to reduce arsenals and to think more clearly about what role nuclear weapons might play before we spend that money.
14:42 SW: Number four, the Biden administration should immediately agree the US will never be the first country to launch nuclear weapons. This means adopting a policy called no first use. I would actually even go further and say, and this will be number five, the only purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter other nuclear weapons. And we will never use them except in response to a nuclear attack. One, it means we're never launching first, and two, it clarifies for the rest of the world that we will only use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack. Not bio, not chemical, not a conventional skirmish somewhere, not another attack. We have plenty of other tools to deal with those things. Does this mean those problems are solved? No, but it also means they don't end up ending to my death, your death, the death of everybody else.
15:30 KS: Yes. I agree completely. Thank you so much.
15:35 KS: Sharon, Biden and Putin have agreed to extend New START for five years, the maximum allowed in the text, which I guess would take us to 2026 and a different US administration potentially. What can we expect to happen in the next few years as this treaty nears expiration?
15:54 SW: Well, hopefully we can start to have an honest conversation with Russia about how to reduce things. And not just reducing numbers, sort of the widgets at the end of an arms control agreement, but to have a conversation about the role those widgets play in the relationship the US has with Russia, with China, and quite frankly, with everybody else. So the Biden administration is clearly interested in not just past arms control, but future, but they've also talked about making changes in the US to reduce the danger that nuclear weapons are going to be used. And as I mentioned before, this takes cooperation from Russia. It also takes cooperation within the US because there are lots of vested interests.
16:43 SW: But my concern is that the Biden administration, like I said, is going to focus on the widgets, that it wants some agreement. We concluded new New START, or maybe it's going to be new, new, new, New START. It'd be nice if there was a little more variety in the names of some of these treaties, right? My concern is they're going to do that and then they're going to walk and say, "Right, done that, life is good." Instead, they need to do the hard work of working with Russia to really rethink the reliance on nuclear weapons and the role they play.
17:16 SW: The Cold War is over. I can't think of anything that is worth killing millions of people in the US and Russia. Nothing that's worth creating large clouds of radioactive fallout that could actually quite frankly kill millions of people in other places, and might even destroy the environment, and according to some, the planet, by creating the form of extreme climate change that we used to call nuclear winter. I mean, surely we can think of some way to resolve our differences or to figure out how to live with them that doesn't involve threatening mutual suicide.
17:57 SW: The tendency is to assume that nuclear weapons aren't dangerous unless they're used. And what this conversation in arms control needs to focus on instead is that the nuclear arsenal is a mistake waiting to happen. I mean, we teach our students, international relations is chock full of misunderstanding, misperceptions, mistakes, and the US president, any US president by herself could launch a nuclear attack on Russia that would kill millions of people by herself. Well, she wouldn't actually walk out to the missile field and do it, but the president is in charge, right? This is the one voice that matters. And it would take 30 minutes or less for that attack to go from order to landing to death.
18:50 SW: And it's actually even worse because in any crisis, I mean, how long do you think a US president might have in a nuclear crisis, Kay, to make a decision about whether to respond? You're president of the United States, right? Your national security advisor walks in and says, "Kay, we've detected 300 incoming ICBMs." And as they're dragging you to a secure facility, the military officer with a nuclear football pulls out some options and says, "Kay, which one do you want?" How many minutes do you think you would have to make that decision?
19:23 KS: Oh, seconds. It feels like seconds.
19:25 SW: It would feel like seconds. Realistically, it might be in the neighborhood of seven or eight minutes, probably a maximum of 12 or 13. But so let's say Kay, you made a decision, right? And it turns out five minutes after you made the decision, someone comes to you and says, and this is an example of a real error, "Dang, those weren't incoming ICBMs, it was a flock of geese flying over the Northern hemisphere, over the horizon, and we mistook it. I'm sorry." There's a history of these mistakes and misunderstandings.
20:01 SW: And so you decide, uh oh, I shouldn't have done that. Well, too bad. You can't recall missiles that are launching nuclear weapons. Once they're gone, they're gone. And so you can imagine you're on the phone to Putin saying, " I know we've not been getting along so well recently, but you know, you're pretty soon going to detect something coming in. Yeah, it's a nuke. We really didn't mean it. Please don't respond." You can imagine how that conversation would go.
20:29 KS: Well, and this is part of the mystique, I think, of nuclear weapons. And we did an episode a couple of months ago about the future of US-Russia relations and I called it the world's most significant dysfunctional relationship between these two countries and the idea, I think, it comes down to why this mystique is so strong is it because it is one person or two people, one on each side, that make this call. And I think that's part of why this issue is so strange in a way, that other conflict issues are not.
21:05 KS: So I guess, as we look at the world now, when there aren't just two super powers, I mean, these are still the world's largest nuclear powers, but you mentioned China. We know there are other countries that have nuclear capabilities. What do you think, I guess, this pretends for the US-Russia relationship going forward, how do other countries become part of that conversation? Do you see a time when maybe there are multilateral nuclear treaties? Is that even a thing that is necessary given other nations' capabilities compared to the US and Russia? I guess I'm asking, what do you think the future holds for these kinds of treaties?
21:50 SW: I was going to say where do we go from here?
21:51 KS: There's a song there, I know it.
21:53 SW: Yes, indeed. We won't sing though. No singing. In one sense I think you hit the nail on the head there about having a conversation. I mean, one of the things that makes me proud to be at AU is we try and teach our students to empathize with different positions, to understand the same situation but from someone else's shoes. And I think that tends to not happen too much in the nuclear world, right? That the US interprets Russia's moves, not as if we were trying to understand them, but because we presume from the beginning that they are a threat. Now magnify that by all the chaos, misunderstanding, miscoordination, miscommunication of multiple different powers, and you can see how there's a problem.
22:41 SW: But there's also an underlying presumption. So one of the arguments that's often made by the military is we're using our nuclear weapons every day, because deterrence is always at work every day. Well, that sort of presumes that if you didn't have the nuclear weapons, someone was going to attack you. And I think that's the logic that we need to challenge. What if there were no nuclear weapons? Let's imagine a future where we don't have them. What then do we imagine our security to be? Does it turn out that we confront each other, but use different methods? Well that might be a win. Does it turn out that the world is basically the same it's just the nukes are gone? Well, that would be a big win.
23:27 SW: So I think part of it is having a conversation where we involve empathizing with the positions of other states, and also trying to imagine a world and what it would be like without the assumptions we currently carry about the role nuclear weapons play in security. But you ask about treaties in other countries. So in January of this year actually a treaty entered into force about nuclear weapons that so far 86 countries have signed and many more expected because when it was proposed by the UN, I think there were 120 some odd countries that were interested. And this is a treaty not about arms control. This is a treaty about prohibition.
24:13 SW: So the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons entered into force in January of this year. This is a treaty that says any signatory agrees that nuclear weapons are not worth having, and they will not have them. And it's also a sign from the vast majority of countries in the world. Keep in mind, only a very few ever developed nuclear weapons. The Ban Treaty is a sign from the vast majority of countries in the world that says, "You know what, US, Russia, China? You committed in the 1960s under the NPT to mutual disarmament and we are tired of waiting. Get on with it."
24:55 SW: So it's not just that nuclear weapons pose a physical danger to the countries that have them that might use them in conflict, it's that they pose a danger to global cooperation and to the reputation of the United States, to the ability of the United States to be seen as a member in good standing of the international community, because the vast majority of countries have said nuclear weapons aren't a legitimate form of security, and we don't want you to have them, and we don't want to be killed when you and Russia fight each other with them.
25:29 KS: I want to imagine that world that you mentioned, and other nations having this stance makes complete sense, but the saying goes, you can't un-ring a bell and we rang that bell in 1945. And do you reasonably, realistically think that the US, Russia, China, other countries that have nuclear weapons, would ever agree to un-ring that bell?
25:52 SW: Oh, absolutely. And I actually think the un-ringing the bell metaphor is a distraction, because it assumes that anything that's invented is here to stay and can always be invented, which is absolutely true. Nuclear weapons aren't about the fact that they were invented. It's about how people choose to confront each other. One of the things to realize is even a small limited nuclear attack can be devastating. There's a great website called NUKEMAP that people can go to, and it's designed by a guy named Alex Wellerstein. You can basically nuke your favorite city, nuke someplace, different sized nuclear weapons, see what's going to happen. All right? So I put an 800 kiloton Russian nuclear weapon actually on the School of International Service, it's that precise, right?
26:40 KS: Were you having a bad day?
26:42 SW: Indeed. No, no, but to illustrate, right? What we're talking about, this is one Russian nuclear weapon of which they have many of this type in their arsenal. And this is one of the ones that can be delivered pretty quickly. 800 kiloton nuclear weapon on the School of International Service. About 350,000 people dead and 1 million people injured. Surely we can come up with a better way of trying to figure out how to get along even with people we don't agree with than threatening to do something, either something like this to our adversaries, or to have them do it to us.
27:18 SW: Maybe people could come up with something worse, maybe something different, maybe something better. We make choices all the time about what we're going to use. There are things that we could make that go unused. There are things that states have invested in that they stop investing in, and that are put on the shelf and considered to be no longer useful. It's not about the fact that nuclear weapons are invented. It's about the choices we make about whether or not to use them. Can you ever not invent them? No. Can you ever figure out a way to trust your adversaries? Yeah, maybe. And that's the argument we should be having. That's the conversation we should be having.
27:55 KS: Sharon Weiner, thank you for joining Big World and me to discuss nuclear weapons and the New START treaty. It's been an informative pleasure, I will use both words, to speak with you. Thanks.
28:07 SW: Thanks very much.
28:08 KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or a review, it'll be like daffodils just being daffodils. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold" by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.