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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Next Steps in Nuclear Arms Control with Russia: Issues for Congress

Amy F. Woolf
Specialist in Nuclear Weapons Policy

In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama stated that the United States would “engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals.” These reductions could include limits on strategic, nonstrategic and nondeployed nuclear weapons. Yet, arms control negotiations between the United States and Russia have stalled, leading many observers to suggest that the United States reduce its nuclear forces unilaterally, or in parallel with Russia, without negotiating a new treaty. Many in Congress have expressed concerns about this possibility, both because they question the need to reduce nuclear forces below New START levels and because they do not want the President to agree to further reductions without seeking the approval of Congress.

Over the years, the United States reduced its nuclear weapons with formal, bilateral treaties, reciprocal, but informal, understandings, and unilateral adjustments to its force posture. The role of Congress in the arms control process also depends on the mechanism used to reduce forces. If the United States and Russia sign a formal treaty, then the Senate must signal its advice and consent with a vote of two-thirds of its Members. The House and Senate would each need to pass legislation approving an Executive Agreement. But the President can reduce U.S. nuclear weapons in parallel with Russia, without seeking congressional approval, if the reductions are taken unilaterally, or as the result of a nonbinding political agreement.

Each of the mechanisms for reducing nuclear forces can possess different characteristics for the arms control process. These include balance and equality, predictability, flexibility, transparency and confidence in compliance, and timeliness. Provisions in formal treaties can mandate balance and equality between the two sides’ forces. They can also provide both sides with the ability to predict the size and structure of the other’s current and future forces. Unilateral measures allow each side to maintain flexibility in deciding the size and structure of its nuclear forces. In addition, the monitoring and verification provisions included in bilateral treaties can provide each side with detailed information about the numbers and capabilities of the other’s nuclear forces, while also helping each side confirm that the other has complied with the limits and restrictions in the treaty. With unilateral reductions, the two sides could still agree to share information, or they could withhold information so that they would not have to share sensitive data about their forces.

It usually takes far longer to reduce nuclear forces through a bilateral arms control treaty than it takes to adopt unilateral adjustments to nuclear forces. The need to find balanced and equitable trades, limits acceptable to both sides, detailed definitions of systems limited by the treaty, and agreed procedures for monitoring and verification can slow the process of negotiations. In addition, it can take months or years for a treaty to enter into force, both because the legislatures must review and vote on the treaty and because other domestic or international events intervene. In contrast, the nations may be able to adopt and implement unilateral adjustments more quickly. 

Date of Report: June 19, 2013
Number of Pages: 37
Order Number: R43037
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