For nearly five decades, nuclear arms control has been an exclusive enterprise between Washington and Moscow. The resulting agreements have provided significant constraints on the U.S.-Soviet (later, U.S.-Russian) nuclear relationship while mandating substantial reductions in their arsenals. However, since the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which reduced U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces to levels not seen since the 1960s, no further progress has been made. Instead, the nuclear arms control regime appears to have broken down, leading some to conclude that the era of negotiated arms limitations has passed.
The U.S. government has decisions to make: is it prepared to accept a world in which nuclear weapons go unconstrained, or do the reasons that led Washington to pursue limits on nuclear arms for more than 40 years remain valid? If the latter, U.S. officials will face a broad set of issues. Formal agreements can no longer entail just constraining U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces; they invariably will have to address related issues, including non-strategic nuclear arms, the nuclear forces of other countries, and perhaps missile defense. These questions will confront the U.S. government with a range of tough choices, such as whether to accept some limits on missile defense in order to secure limits on non-strategic nuclear weapons, and how hard to press for constraints on China’s modest nuclear arsenal. This article explores those issues and choices.
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