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State Dept. official on Trump’s vision for nuclear arms control

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The New START treaty is the only remaining limit on U.S. and Russian offensive nuclear weapons. It is set to expire next February.

    So far, the Trump administration has been unwilling to begin negotiations. Instead, the U.S. says it wants to explore a broader agreement, to include China, but critics fear that strategy, that it might risk the treaty altogether.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On Monday, 50 miles off Alaska, a large Russian reconnaissance aircraft, and another one behind it, are trailed by American jets. The Air Force says the U.S. jets told the Russians, stay out of U.S. airspace.

    It's a cat-and-mouse game right out of the Cold War. And, today, there's another Cold War practice, spending billions on new nuclear capacity.

    In 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled a half-dozen new weapons systems, including a nuclear cruise missile he called Invincible. The U.S. is replacing aging nuclear bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and recently fielded a new nuclear warhead like this one that could be launched by submarine.

  • Former President Ronald Reagan:

    Today, on this vital issue, at least we can see what can be accomplished when we pull together.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Back in the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia negotiated arms control agreements to limit nuclear weapons.

    The last of those agreements was signed in 2010 by President Obama and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, limits the number of deployed warheads and their delivery systems, intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers.

    And it includes verification measures, such as movement notifications, data exchanges, and on-site inspections. It also expires in 11 months.

    But the treaty doesn't cover some of those new Russian weapons or limit China's nuclear arsenal at all, so the Trump administration says it wants to create a new framework.

    But some arms control experts, and members of Congress, fear New START could expire and spark a new arms race.

    And to discuss New START, as well as other issues, I'm joined by Chris Ford, assistant secretary of international security and nonproliferation at the State Department.

    Chris Ford, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you very much.

  • Christopher Ford:

    Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Every administration since John F. Kennedy has achieved progress in arms control, except for the Trump administration, which has taken us out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, dismantled the Iran nuclear deal, hasn't closed a deal with North Korea, and is dragging its feet, according to its critics, on New START.

    Does the Trump administration have something against arms control?

  • Christopher Ford:

    We are in the process of standing up for the integrity of the arms control process.

    We felt it necessary to withdraw from the INF Treaty because Russia flagrantly violated it for years, resisting all of our diplomatic entreaties to come back into compliance. And so we felt that it was essential, not only for our national security, most importantly, but also for the integrity of the arms control process.

    That's not anti-arms control. That's being the faithful friend of arms control.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's talk about New START. New START is the only remaining limit on offensive nuclear weapons that we have with Russia.

    Why are you waiting to extend it?

  • Christopher Ford:

    Well, what we are trying to do is evaluate the New START question in the broader context of how to get to the future of — the future vision that President Trump has outlined for this administration of a trilateral arms control agreement that includes both Russia and China, but also brings in Russia's non-strategic weapons, where they have a significant numerical advantage over us at this time and are on track to build up their arsenal even further, and brings the whole range of China's systems.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You have invited the Chinese to have a strategic dialogue with you. And you said that you're waiting for that response.

    But the Chinese have at least said this.

    On February 12, the Foreign Ministry spokesman says: "China has no intention of joining the so-called trilateral arms control negotiations with the U.S. and Russia."

    So don't we already have China's answer?

  • Christopher Ford:

    Well, what we do not have China's answer to is an invitation to sit down with us, analogous to what we do with the Russians, to talk about strategic security issues.

    If China is indeed the kind of responsible power that it proclaims itself to be, then there is no alternative but to sit down and take that kind of responsibility seriously in the strategic nuclear realm as well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Chinese have somewhere around 300, 400-plus nuclear weapons or so. The Russians and the Americans, of course, have many times that.

    The Chinese say that the U.S. and Russia should reduce their numbers before they're willing to have this conversation.

    Is the U.S. willing to reduce numbers before that conversation can be had with the Chinese?

  • Christopher Ford:

    President Trump has mentioned the possibility of some kind of a cap. It is clearly essential to think in terms of arms limitation before one can think in terms of arms reduction.

    One should stop the bleeding before one can worry about how to have the right exercise regimen for perfect health. And we think it's essential that China live up to its obligation to pursue negotiations in good faith towards avoiding a nuclear arms race.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Are you opening the door for Russia to raise some of the issues? And is there any risk, by waiting until you get this response from the Chinese, that President Vladimir Putin, maybe later this year, won't be interested in extending New START? Is that a risk?

  • Christopher Ford:

    Well, we're already talking with the Russians in our strategic security dialogue, as I mentioned. We have had…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But not about extending New START, right?

  • Christopher Ford:

    We are talking about what the future of arms control should look like.

    And that is a much broader picture than just the question of New START. New START extension is a piece of the puzzle, but it is a much bigger puzzle that one needs also to be thinking about.

    What we are concerned about is how to deal with the broader challenges that are not covered or coverable by New START at all.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But I have talked to a lot of arms control experts, both Republican and Democrat, and they specifically say, look, New START is helpful, right? It provides transparency into the Russian system that we wouldn't otherwise have.

    You're talking about a larger version of arms control, hopefully trilateral. Are you risking the benefits of New START in order to accomplish some of the goals that you're talking about?

  • Christopher Ford:

    Well, the decision on New START hasn't yet been made. We are not arguing that there are no benefits to New START.

    There clearly are. We certify those to Congress in a bunch of congressional reports each year. The question is, however, in what way do we best get to the president's vision of trilateral arms control that answers more of these questions with more parties than before.

    And if extending New START is a good way, either for five years or fractionally, perhaps, which is also available, if extending New START is a good way to get to that vision, then we are in favor of it. If it's not, then we need to find that other way.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Speaking of China, you have been speaking a lot lately about what the U.S. calls predatory Chinese practices, and especially highlighting the Chinese military what's called fusion with the private sector

    What is that concern that you have? And how is that different from the relationship that the Pentagon has with private industry in the U.S.?

  • Christopher Ford:

    Well, what's called — what they call military-civil fusion in China is a strategy for systematically breaking down all barriers between the civilian industrial sector, in effect, and the military sector, so that there's essentially a fused and unitary industrial base that is able to be called upon by the powers that be to support both economic competitiveness and strategic goals in that realm and China's development of military power.

    In support of that, they have a range of coercive tools and structures in place that no one else in the rest of the world, frankly, does. We certainly don't.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I read a recent speech that you gave on this. And you talked about how the U.S. needed to relearn how to fight major power competition.

    Have our great power competition muscles atrophied?

  • Christopher Ford:

    I would say that they have atrophied to a degree.

    I think, at the end of the Cold War, we probably had a tendency to assume somewhat complacency — complacently — that those kinds of ugly and awkward great power competitive things were sort of in the rear-view mirror, and we didn't have to worry so much about them.

    Unfortunately, Russia and China didn't draw the same lesson from that period. And they doubled down on their own competitive strategies. And we are now trying to make up for some ground that I wish we had not lost.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Chris Ford, assistant secretary of international security and nonproliferation, thank you very much.

  • Christopher Ford:

    Thanks for having me.

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