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Apocalypse...Soon?

Ambassador Thomas Pickering frets that deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations are leading to a new nuclear arms race.

The United States and Russia are stuck in a spiral of mutual demonization that is sucking the two countries into a new arms race and tugging the world toward new brinks of nuclear confrontation, former U.S. Ambassador the United Nations Thomas Pickering told The Fletcher School. And the hollowing out of both country’s diplomatic corps means that soon there might not be anyone left who both understands the gravity of that bilateral unravelling and can also artfully negotiate new agreements to halt its momentum.

“Where we are is essentially reinventing the arms race of the Cold War in some respects,” Pickering said. Leaders, he said, have begun to “treat nuclear weapons as if they were usable commodities, as if they were something a little bit larger than a hand grenade.

The decline in relations has resulted from intertwining geopolitical circumstances following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s narrow 2011 re-election. On one hand, Pickering said Putin exploits Russian nationalism to paper over Russia’s deep economic problems while also trying to carve out new spheres of Russian influence in a bid to return to global great power status. 

Much of that nationalism is fed by deep denigration of the United States coupled with arguments that the Americans forced Russia into invidious agreements following the end of the Cold War, including North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion and the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002.

“The litany is long, and it’s not entirely untrue,” Pickering said. “We have never had a perfect foreign policy, and neither has Russia.”

One prime example of Russia’s imperfect foreign policy has been its military meddling in neighboring Ukraine starting in 2014 and its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.  

A solution to hostilities in Ukraine, which Pickering said seem to be moving in the direction of a stalemate, will require a multilateral negotiation involving international organizations and careful diplomacy between the United States and Russia.

Grounded in suspicion and perceived malice, as the U.S.-Russia relationship now is, those diplomatic efforts could be greatly aided by areas of mutual interdependence.

“It’s nuclear with Russia, and it’s dollars with China, and I think we see both of those playing a role,” Pickering said, adding that climate change is another potential overlap. “We need an area of existential or near-existential concern.”

But even if those areas exist, it seems increasingly unlikely that the United States has the diplomatic capacity to act on them. Pickering pointed to the potential unravelling next year of the New START agreement – or the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty  – which limits both country’s nuclear arsenals, as evidence of that lack of diplomatic ability—or of interest.

“Does the U.S. actually have the capacity to renegotiate arms control given the damage that’s been done to the State Department [under President Donald Trump]?” asked moderator and Fletcher School Professor of International Politics Daniel Drezner.

At this point, any sort of solution will take a long time and would likely entail some mistakes, Pickering conceded. The question is: what kind?

At the height of the Cold War, the United States and Russia had about 70,000 nuclear weapons; today that number is down to less than 13,000. Without a new nuclear agreement, however, it seems likely that more money will be spent to maintain, improve, and create new nuclear weapons as a new arms race gains speed.

Might it take another Cuban Missile Crisis to galvanize leadership toward an agreement on arms control and better bilateral relations between the United States and Russia? Or might it take something worse?

“I don’t think we’re fated [to have a contentious policy with Moscow],” Pickering said. “But I think the process of turning it around is very hard because we’ve dug a deep hole for ourselves. I remember [former Secretary of State] George Shultz saying any number of times: ‘When you’re in a deep hole, stop digging.’ And I think that’s where we are.”

“A hopeful note to end on is,” Pickering said, “We haven’t had a nuclear war yet.”

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