Revival of intl protocols should be US priority

2021-01-26 12:03:29

  US President Joe Biden speaks about administration plans to strengthen American manufacturing during a brief appearance in the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, on Jan 25, 2021. [Photo/Agencies] High on US President Joe Biden's agenda will be restoration of some of the major international agreements abandoned by his predecessor over the past four years. Atop the list is the Paris climate agreement, which addresses the most existential challenge confronting the planet, followed by the international agreement on Iran's nuclear program, from which the United States announced its withdrawal in 2018. Slightly lower down the list is the less-debated and potentially more problematic Open Skies Treaty, a confidence-building pact mainly involving the US, Russia and Europe, and conceived to replace the past superpower tensions of the Cold War. The treaty gives its 34 members-35 until the US formally withdrew in November-the right to conduct surveillance flights over the territory of other signatories to verify their military deployments. Since it took effect in 2002, the treaty has served to avoid misunderstandings about the military intentions of any of the participants, particularly at times of cross-border tension. The Trump administration cited alleged violations of the pact by Russia to justify its decision to withdraw. Democratic Party lawmakers challenged the timing of the move, so close to the presidential election last year. Less than a week before Biden's inauguration, the fate of the pact was thrown into further doubt when Russia announced it had also decided to withdraw. Moscow had complained that US allies still in the treaty had refused to guarantee that the information gathered during Open Skies flights would not be passed on to Washington. Both sides now have a six-month breathing space in which to determine the fate of the treaty, while Russia's parliament considers whether to ratify the withdrawal. An even more immediate defense-related issue for the Biden team also involves its future relations with Russia. In February, the 10-year-old nuclear New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the two countries is due to expire. Under its terms, the previous Cold War antagonists pledged to limit their deployed strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,550 warheads each. The new US administration and Russian officials have indicated their interest in extending the pact, although there is no consensus on how long the extension might be. In the first days of the Biden presidency, his officials were reported to have offered Russia a five-year extension of the pact. The Trump administration was accused of complicating the issue of renewing the treaty, also known as New START, by dragging China into the equation. Washington invited China to bilateral US-Russian nuclear talks in Vienna in June last year, but Beijing declined. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at the time that it would make more sense for the US to take up Russia's offer to extend the nuclear pact without involving Beijing. Zhao said that would "create conditions for other nuclear weapon states to join multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations". One Russian commentator suggested that the Biden administration would restore greater seriousness to the nuclear issue. "There are now adults in the room in the United States," Elena Chernenko of the newspaper Kommersant told Agence France-Presse. "So even with these areas of confrontation, maybe this is the one avenue where Moscow and Washington will be able to compromise to make the world a little bit safer." Other international experts have also urged the Biden administration to urgently seize the opportunity to extend the US-Russian pact. Defense strategist Hans Binnendijk wrote in Defense News that a speedy extension of New START would be "only the first step in a long process to return nuclear arms control from the brink". He said Biden would have an experienced team to sort through the complex issues involved, but cautioned that it would take "time and creativity to be successful". The president's first months in office will inevitably involve mending fences with US allies after a period in which the country's political philosophy and actions were based on "America First". Reviving the protocols that help keep the world safe, at least in the field of nuclear weapons, should have an important place on that agenda, even if the climate crisis generates more headlines. But as Harvard nuclear expert Rebecca Davis Gibbons cautioned this month: "Biden has more experience with nuclear issues than most incoming presidents, and yet even those with significant expertise would face strong headwinds in advancing nuclear diplomacy over the next four years." The author is a senior media consultant for China Daily UK.