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Monday, August 2, 2021

Looking past Geneva’s nuclear talks

International diplomacy is a mixture of mostly choreographed niceties and some essential necessities. The United States and Russia ably demonstrated both by reaffirming their commitment to nuclear treaty talks in Geneva last week. At the same time, their dialogue serves as a reminder that nuclear proliferation persists among a brace of other nations determined to beat plowshares into swords. Americans are watching to see whether Biden-style statecraft is of sufficient caliber to keep them safe.

During their three-hour face-to-face in Geneva, President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin settled on a basic framework for carrying out their previously agreed, five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Hammering out the details of mutually acceptable parity between the United States and Russia now falls to working-level staff. As a joint statement put it, the dueling nations will “embark together on an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future.”

Negotiations over the control of devastating nuclear weapons sets a welcome example for the world’s nuclear wannabes, so long as talks do not simply serve as a facade behind which to hide deceitful noncompliance. Such subterfuge has not been uncommon for Mr. Putin’s Russia. Disturbingly, Washington has sometimes looked the other way when it has happened — until President Trump entered the White House.

When Russia purportedly skirted the rules governing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) by quietly adding nuclear capability to certain conventional missiles, Mr. Trump eschewed the expected wink and nod. Instead, he withdrew from the treaty in 2019 and attempted to replace it with a tighter, trilateral pact that included China. It was a forward-thinking idea that came to naught: Moscow waffled, Beijing balked and the Trump era ended.

Taking his shot at nonproliferation, Mr. Biden must deal with a declining Russian superpower that plays “find the pea” with its nuclear arsenal of 1,550 nuclear warheads and 700 missiles and bombers, and a rising China that vows to quickly double its ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles to 400.

If the previous U.S. president failed to make Americans safer by overreaching, the current one could blunder by settling for half-measures. Rather than allow his negotiators to shrug, Mr. Biden should object when Russia exploits rules governing the minutiae of missile launchers and payloads to produce new nuclear armaments not covered by existing treaties. He should also redouble Mr. Trump’s efforts to engage China in nuclear talks.

Anything less than a clear-eyed approach to the most formidable nuclear powers would only encourage reckless behavior on the part of the world’s nuclear upstarts. With North Korea’s Kim Jong-un saying he is ready for “dialogue and confrontation,” and Ebrahim “Butcher of Tehran” Raisi elected Iran’s president, nuclear security becomes more unpredictable by the day.

Mr. Biden‘s foremost role as president is to safeguard American lives. Geneva was only the beginning of his trial.

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