Let us think together about the letter four United States senators sent recently to the now departed secretary of state Rex Tillerson, urging him to start arms-control talks with Russia. The senators were Dianne Feinstein, Edward Markey, Jeff Merkley, and Bernie Sanders—three Democrats and an independent who may as well be one. And the letter they sent was blunt. It began, “We write to urge the State Department to convene the next U.S.-Russia Strategic Dialogue as soon as possible.”
The next paragraph read: “A U.S.–Russia Strategic Dialogue is more urgent following President Putin’s public address on March 1st[,] when he referred to several new nuclear weapons Russia is reportedly developing[,] including a cruise missile and a nuclear underwater drone, which are not currently limited by the New START treaty, and would be destabilizing if deployed.”
A little further down, this: “We encourage the administration to propose alternative solutions to address Russia’s violation of the Intermediate–Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov admitted to the existence of this ground launched cruise missile (GLCM), but contended that the system was INF Treaty compliant.”
Among those aware of it, this letter was read as a highly positive move on the part of its four signatories. The senators noted all those disputes that now color relations between Washington and Moscow. These include, of course, “Russia’s brazen interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.” The letter also mentioned Ukraine, the reannexation of Crimea, and “continued violation” of the above-noted INF Treaty. “There is no guarantee we can make progress with Russia on these issues,” the senators wrote. But it is because of them, not in spite of them, that we must negotiate: This was the core of their argument.
I suggested the letter enjoyed a positive reception, but I must qualify: to the extent it enjoyed a reception at all. As my colleague James Carden wrote, the senators’ letter “has been met with a virtual media blackout.” Most of us, given how immersed we are in media manipulation, seem to have nodded, “Good idea. We should be talking to the Russians about nukes now that Putin suggests another nuclear arms race is in the offing.” Maybe this was the response the press intended to cultivate. A first, reparatory step toward improving things.
Anyone who proposes controls over nuclear weapons, in any circumstance whatsoever, has a good idea. But the context is important, readers: Don’t leave home without it. What is the context in which this letter was sent from the Senate over to the State Department? What is its starting point and where does it drop us all off? These are the questions we must ask.
Why not begin with what the four senators did not do—or, more accurately, have not done?
How come the senators did not acknowledge in their letter all the American actions that have contributed to the dangerous new arms competition that has developed between the United States and Russia? Why did they not criticize the Obama administration’s earlier authorization of a $1 trillion modernization of the Pentagon’s nuclear inventory, or (2) the latest National Security Strategy, issued in December, which announced a strategy premised on “great power competition” with Russia and China, or (3) the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review, released in February, wherein our generals advocated a further push to the deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons, thereby lowering the nuclear threshold. To their credit, the four signatories have on occasion spoken out against aspects of the US nuclear-modernization program and the new US nuclear posture. But surely a letter urging a genuine US-Russian dialogue would at least acknowledge the relevance of these potentially provocative American policies, if not call for the Trump administration to put a halt to them.