ICYMI: Falling apart? The politics of New START and strategic modernization

Rebecca Hersman joins panel discussion at Brookings Institution to discuss the future of New START and strategic modernization. Read her full opening remarks and view the panel here.

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Falling apart? The politics of New START and strategic modernization

Brookings Institution – Opening Remarks (edited)

January 7, 2019

Rebecca Hersman


Rebecca Hersman at Brookings Institute

See the full panel discussion at Brookings.

RH: It’s interesting, actually, hearing the reflection back and realizing a number of years have passed. We all sort of recall history a little differently, and our history starts at different points. I think all the other previous panelists have talked about the fact that history here actually started going back into the Bush administration much earlier, where the legacy both on the arms control side and on the sustaining our nuclear forces, and the atrophy and the neglect that had occurred during that administration, both were significant factors that kind of drove the political process. So, I think that is important.

I want to take a step back and just make one comment that I think is important. I, when I was preparing for this, I got hung up on the consensus word. And, I have used it. I have talked about the fragile consensus. But I am wondering if that is really a mistake. Because actually there is not consensus. I am not sure if we ever had consensus. Definitely, I don’t think we have it now. I’m not sure if we actually need consensus to do what we need to do.

Consensus generally refers to a widely accepted or a universal agreement. And as this is laid out, we never had universal agreement. That has never really existed. What we did have is a compromised-based, bipartisan coalition. And that compromised-based, bipartisan coalition had these two elements that had to hang together. It included arms control; it included modernization. By modernization, we don’t mean new, fancy things. In fact, it was a very limited modernization to sustain at an appropriate and healthy level. Those key elements, the importance of having a bipartisan coalition that will support both and recognize they are both there, that is essential.

The second thing I would say is:  it is fragile. Whether it is a consensus or a coalition or a compromise, it is extremely fragile. The metaphor I usually use is that we have been playing a game of Jenga. We built this up, the Jenga tower was built, and they describe very much how it was built and put together. In reality, ever since different parties have been pulling out a block of that Jenga game.

This is where I think some things that have occurred more recently are very important. You might support or not support low-yield capabilities. Either way, I believe they do represent a block coming out of that Jenga game. I think aspects of things we’ve been doing on INF and some ways in which that has been handled in recent months represents another withdrawal of the Jenga block. So now we have a situation, where we have had a change in the House and others on the other side want their turn at pulling some blocks. The problem is, we don’t know which block is going to bring that tower down. Once its down, building it back up is going to be very difficult. So, I think we need to be very cautious.

Frank Rose: What’s important for maintaining consensus in the future?

RH: So, I think in order to rebuild, and again I don’t think consensus is achievable, but I do think we need a coalition. I do think that coalition will need to be rebuilt. I think there are three key elements to that. First, is a recognition that we have to have a balanced approach between arms control and modernization. We are not going to proceed effectively without that. Therefore, compromise is going to be needed on all sides. So, I think that includes a very strong statement to try to advance at least the extension of New START. I think it also includes, in particular, some regrouping of how we are approaching the INF issue and hopefully some clarity on that. Again, I have some deep concerns about what the Russians have done in terms of noncompliance, but also concerns about how the whole issue has been handled that has allowed far too much of the blame to fall our direction. We can do some things about that. We could make statements. The administration could make some statements in terms of not seeking to develop or deploy non-compliant capabilities regardless of our status. We can say we object. But we are not going to seek to employ those capabilities. We could help ourselves a lot by getting our basic INF story straight and making it less confusing about are we doing this because of Asia? Are we doing this because of Europe? Are we going to deploy? Are we not? We want this, we don’t? Just so much confusion.  Let’s just focus on the non-compliance problem and make clear that we are not seeking additional capabilities in that regard.

The second big area is we need to do a better job instead of seeing modernization and arms control as sort of Yin and Yang but to recognize that they work together. They are critically important together. Arms control puts some bounds on what are overall numbers look like, what the size of the arsenal is and helps to manage things down. It also gives us great insight into what the Russians are doing which helps us to posture and prepare correctly. That’s critically important. But similarly, the overall diversity in our posture to include the three legs of the triad are what give us the flexibility to not get into a parity trap. So, if New START goes away, that posture gives us the ability to adjust without having to over worry about exact parity and numbers elsewhere. So, it allows us to flex. The other thing I would say, speaking to that interrelationship between the two, is that when we are looking at those capabilities, especially in GSBD, we need to do be clear that our ground-based strategic deterrent, as well as the others, needs to have an approach that is flexible going forward—whether numbers go up or they go down. That we are not locked into numbers, so that we can withstand reductions if they are favorable in the future.

The third thing is that we need to have a much more honest conversation about resources. That has become among the more disingenuous aspects of this overall debate. What actually can save money, what can’t save money. But, also as the previous panelists have talked about, how important it is not to find ourselves back into the situation that we were in the Bush administration—where in fact we did not have the appropriate stewardship of our nuclear weapons program because of these resourcing problems. We don’t want to find ourselves back there.

The final thing we need to do is to be better listeners.  Those of us who generally support or think we are part of the consensus or coalition, that whole group needs to listen to both sides of the debate more carefully and be more attentive to not being as dismissive inside this polarized community.

Falling apart? The politics of New START and strategic modernization

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