Three arms control negotiators walk into a café…

By Sara Z. Kutchesfahani, July 6, 2020

A small Chinese flag placed in front of an empty chair. At a meeting between US and Russian negotiators in June, US Ambassador Marshall Billingslea tweeted a staged photo that appeared to show that seats had been prepared for a no-show Chinese delegation. However, the stunt reflected poorly on the United States, since the stars on the Chinese flag are inaccurately oriented. Photo credit: Official Account of US Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall S. Billingslea, Twitter.

For the first time since January, representatives from the United States and Russia recently met in Vienna for the latest round of strategic security dialogues, which included a discussion on the last remaining agreement on nuclear weapons: the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). In short, the treaty limits the number of US and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each. The treaty is set to expire in February 2021, but it can easily be extended for another five years. While President Vladimir Putin of Russia has already stated that he is ready to extend, the Trump administration has yet to make a final decision.

Just four months shy of the US elections, these talks may provide some insight into President Trump’s intentions in salvaging—or further shredding—arms control. With the next dialogue taking place perhaps as early as late July, the Trump administration has continued to loudly signal its interest in having Beijing participate in the talks—a call repeatedly refused by the Chinese government. The sudden interest in including China in what has traditionally been a bilateral dialogue between the world’s two largest nuclear powers seems somewhat odd, especially since China’s nuclear weapon stockpile is dramatically lower than that of the United States or Russia. Recent figures indicate that China’s stockpile is at 290, which pales in comparison to the US arsenal at 3,800 and Russian arsenal at 4,310.

Because it is unlikely that the Chinese will be brought to the negotiating table, a three-way dialogue between US, Chinese, and Russian arms control negotiators is left to the imagination. Based largely on actual tweets and official statements (hyperlinked below), here’s how such a dialogue might go.

Marshall, an American diplomat, is sitting by himself sipping Pu-erh tea at Café Central in Vienna. In walks Sergei, a Russian diplomat, and Fu, a Chinese diplomat.

Marshall: Sergei, Fu, fancy seeing you here! I was just working on my new arms racing—er, arms control—strategy, and once I’m finished I’ll be willing to listen to your views. I am looking forward to a truly multilateral conversation among the world’s greatest powers.

Sergei: Shouldn’t you listen to our views before you make the strategy?

Marshall: Uh, well, I just scribbled it on this napkin, so I can revise it later. Please, sit down. Let’s chat arms control.

Fu: (Remains standing.) How are you defining arms control, Marshall? Do you mean guns? What about ballistic missile defense systems? Remember the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty your country withdrew from a while back? Or, anti-satellite weapons? Or, I wonder if it has anything to do with you accusing the other party of violations so that you so that you can seek a military edge? (The INF Treaty springs to mind here). Is that what you mean by arms control? Is the United States willing to negotiate on those?

Sergei: Fu raises an interesting question, Marshall. Do you seek to engage in a serious, honest, and professional dialogue?

Marshall: Uh, we don’t want to negotiate on things where we have an advantage. That would be crazy. Let’s stick to talking about deployed nuclear weapons. That’s what New START deals with.

Fu: OK, well China has a grand total of … (checks notes) … zero deployed nuclear weapons! We keep all of our warheads separate from the missiles that launch them. So, will you come down to our level of zero, or should we come up to your level of 1,550?

Marshall: (Wipes his brow.) Look, this isn’t about arms control for arms control sake. It’s about negotiating for negotiating’s sake so I can tell President Trump we’re making progress.

Sergei: Are you willing to respond to President Putin’s offer of extending New START?

Marshall: Well, the treaty has some glaring deficiencies. Any new arms control agreement among our great countries must be binding and must contain verifiable and enforceable provisions—unlike the very weak verification regime the Obama administration negotiated.

Sergei: That’s interesting. You mean something like on-site inspections?

Marshall: Exactly!

Sergei: You know, you Americans get to inspect our weapons 18 times per year. And your own State Department has confirmed that Russia has never violated New START.

Marshall: Look, we know the Russians have exploited the significant loopholes in the treaty. Those behaviors have to stop.

Sergei: OK, so we let the treaty die, and then there will be no more loopholes. Is that what you want?

Marshall: Yes! Wait, no. Close the loopholes, and bring in China. One of the many failings of New START is that it doesn’t include the Chinese.

Fu: No, thank you. China has on many occasions stated its position on opposing trilateral negotiations of arms control. The Chinese government respectfully urges you, Marshall, and the Trump administration, to stop playing dull tricks, and, instead earnestly respond to Russia’s call of extending New START, and have serious, sincere talks on this. This serves the common aspiration of the international community.

Sergei: Marshall, why not extend New START now, and then try to bring in China to a different agreement later? A five-year extension of New START would give us much more time to discuss a new multilateral deal involving China. Bozhe moi—we could even bring in your nuclear-armed allies France and the United Kingdom too! (Winks at Fu.)

Marshall: Sergei, buddy, I’m not sure how this translates into Russian, but the Trump administration’s guiding principle is to always throw the baby out with the bathwater. As President Trump has stated, the US government is committed to effective arms control that includes not only Russia, but also China, and looks forward to a future discussion to avoid a costly arms race. And the best way to avoid a costly arms race is for both of you to give the United States everything we demand. Especially as China will double its nuclear arsenal in the next 10 years.

Fu: No, thank you. China opposes any country talking out of turn about China on the issue of arms control and will not take part in any trilateral negotiations on a nuclear disarmament agreement.

Marshall: What!? As my uncle Peter Parker always used to say, achieving great power status requires behaving with great power responsibility. We can’t tolerate a “Great Wall of Secrecy” on your nuclear build-up. Join our formal arms control talks!

Fu: No thank you. Time and again you drag China into the New START extension issue between the United States and Russia. It is the same old trick whenever you seek to shift responsibility to others. We have noticed from the large amount of comments from US experts on arms control that even they have already seen through this trick.

Sergei: It seems that the United States simply wants to wreck New START and at the same time save face and shift the blame to Russia and China. For the past year, since President Trump said he wanted a broader deal, the US approach to New START has been quite strange. President Putin put the ball in your court when he offered to extend. But now, the Russian Federation’s view on this is that chances for New START to be sustained are rapidly moving close to zero, and I think that on February 5, 2021, this treaty will just lapse, and it will end. We will have no START as of February 6, 2021.

Marshall: Why are you so desperate for extension, Sergei?

Sergei: We’re not. Why are you so desperate to avoid extension?

Marshall: Well, as I said, there are too many loopholes. There are lots of things that New START doesn’t cover.

Sergei: Like US ballistic missile defenses? We’d be happy to include those!

Marshall: No, no, no. Like that nuclear-powered cruise missile you’re developing.

Sergei: We will trade our nuclear-powered cruise missile for your ballistic missile defenses. Easy as that.

Marshall: No, I don’t want to trade. You should simply wrap all your new programs up and discard them. Maybe, if you’re lucky, I can get you free passes to President Trump’s golf course. Same for you, Fu. How does that sound? Behaving like a great power, Fu, involves beginning negotiations—which I am trying to do here—to provide more assurance, more openness, more transparency regarding your plans and intentions, and what your actual capabilities are to reassure the United States.

Fu: No, thank you. Our position is clear.

Sergei: Yeah, I’m not much of a golfer.

Marshall: C’mon, we’ll make a good deal. A good deal in the context of arms control has two key parts. One, it needs to enable the US to avoid having to spend enormous sums of money because it imposes meaningful restrictions on other countries, like yours. Two, we have to be satisfied that you will abide by the terms of the accord. And, if you don’t abide by it, there will be serious consequences. Now, will you agree to a formal meeting about this?

Fu: No, thank you.

Marshall: But we’ll even place a Chinese flag on the table for you. Did you see the last one?

Fu: Yes, I noticed. But that wasn’t the Chinese flag. The stars were kind of in the wrong spot. We hope certain people in the US can do their homework and improve their general knowledge to avoid becoming a laughingstock next time. If you can’t even get our flag right, how can you expect us to join arms control talks? (Shakes his head in disbelief.)

Sergei: (Pats Marshall on the back.) You tried, Marshall. Now, what say you to fleshing out the extension of New START?

Marshall: (Storms out with napkin.)

Scene fade. End.

Author’s note: Sara would like to acknowledge the great work and help of Shannon Bugos from the Arms Control Association. Shannon dug up and sifted through countless tweets, press releases, and statements from the US, Russian, and Chinese governments regarding a trilateral arms control negotiation, much of which was used verbatim in the preceding dialogue.

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Brian Whit
Brian Whit

The intrigue and bravura, the idiocy and miscommunication remind me of the events that lead up to ‘the Great War’, WWI. A plea for diplomacy while the state department was gutted 2 yrs ago. Common sense, or applied power, consistent methodical statesmanship, diplomacy, negotiation and deals where everyone comes away a winner. A tall order, on every order of magnitude in society, to keep ourselves from blowing up.
The column is highly instructive, for those in a position to benefit from it.

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