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The United States and Russia Must Work Together on Nuclear

This is the Winning Essay of the 2019 Foreign Policy and Carnegie Corporation Essay Contest. Reprinted here with permission.

By Grace Kier '20 (Learn more about Grace Kier)

A tired soldier sits in an office, counting down the minutes until he gets to go home. He thinks about what he will eat for dinner, maybe whether he will watch something on TV or read a book. Suddenly, there is a ping on his screen: “INCOMING OBJECT.” He sees a foreign missile about to enter his country’s airspace and must immediately evaluate the threat: Is the object a nuclear weapon? The soldier knows that the future of his country and the entire world hinges on his decisions in the next two minutes. Should he flag the missile as a nuclear weapon, causing the release of his country’s nuclear arsenal? Or should he wait two painfully long minutes to see if it is simply a weather probe? In either scenario, being wrong is deadly.

This terrifying scene actually did play out in 1995, when a weather missile was launched over Norway but was mistaken by Russian soldiers as a nuclear weapon. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and no nuclear weapons were launched. The question, however, remains: If the same thing were to happen in 2019, would a similar decision be reached––by either the United States or Russia?

In order to improve global security and avoid the type of scenario described above, the United States should further engage Russia on arms control and nuclear security; these issues are inherently intertwined with other key issues in the U.S.-Russian relationship, including cybersecurity and geopolitical competition. By effectively engaging Russia on nuclear security, the United States would see tangible results in these other sectors as well, thereby improving global security across many dimensions.

The primary way the United States should engage with Russia is by building a stronger arms control relationship between the two countries.

This task should begin by simply holding candid talks between experienced American and Russian career diplomats to address a variety of points of contention in the current arms control regime, including notions of strategic stability and accusations of cheating on treaties.

The ultimate goal of these proposed talks must be twofold: the implementation of concrete risk reduction measures and a follow-on agreement to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, which expires in 2021. Risk reduction measures can include actually using the presidential hotline between Washington and Moscow and moving the risk status of some weapons down from high alert.

Such measures could possibly prevent a horrific nuclear strike and would increase overall trust in the relationship. A follow-on treaty, which should be implemented after the extension of New START, must properly address the new concerns of each side, some of which were raised as the countries levied mutual accusations of cheating on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which the United States subsequently left.

A follow-on treaty is paramount: If New START, the only remaining bilateral arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, disappears, so too do the last measures through which each country can verify that the other has not massively rearmed. Without verification mechanisms, any vestiges of trust between the two countries would be short-lived and would ultimately dissipate, with the countervailing result of an even greater arms race and increased risk of an unintended nuclear war.

About Grace Kier ’20 Grace Kier

Hometown: West Chester, PA
Majors: Global Studies, Russian and Post-Soviet Studies Concentration and Government

Grace Kier is a Murray 1693 Scholar

The 1693 Scholars Program is a highly selective merit-based scholarship. All freshman applicants are reviewed as potential 1693 Scholars. There is no separate application process. Students selected as 1693 Scholars represent the very best and brightest of William & Mary’s entire applicant pool, demonstrating outstanding academic promise and the desire to engage with and enrich the world around them; they are individuals with imagination, insight and conviction. 1693 Scholars receive Virginia tuition, fees, room and board annually. In addition the Scholars work closely with distinguished faculty mentors, planning their own course of study and enjoying access and support reserved at most universities exclusively for graduate students.

Selected W&M Activities
  • Editor-in-Chief, The Monitor: Journal of International Studies
  • Member of Dobro Slovo Slavic Studies Honor Society
  • Studied abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, on a W&M faculty-led program. 
Selected Awards
  • Phi Beta Kappa member, Ann Callahan Chapel Prize Winner
  • Foreign Policy Magazine Essay Contest Winner
  • Robert M. and Rebecca W. Gates Scholarship: Merit-based scholarship for academic year study abroad awarded to an outstanding student with exceptional academic ability and a demonstrated interest in the field of Global Studies, International Relations, or Africana Studies.
  • Gregory M. Tepper Award for Summer Study in St. Petersburg, Russia
  • Reves Center for International Studies, Funding for Unpaid Summer Experience (FUSE) Scholarship