October 19, 2020
by Robert Einhorn

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The United States has at times worked cooperatively with Russia and China to promote shared nonproliferation objectives. But with no end in sight to the current precipitous decline in Washington’s bilateral relations with Moscow and Beijing, constructive engagement on today’s nonproliferation challenges has become increasingly problematic. Unless the United States and its two great power competitors can find a way to carve out areas of cooperation in otherwise highly adversarial relationships, the remarkably positive record of international efforts to prevent additional countries from acquiring weapons will be difficult to sustain.

From sometimes partners to frequent foes, this Occasional Paper examines the history of US cooperation with Russia and China on key issues including Iran, North Korea, Syria, international nonproliferation mechanisms, and nuclear security. It also outlines the obstacles to future nonproliferation cooperation, as well as the growing proliferation threats that require such cooperation. Most importantly, it identifies several possible areas where the United States can hope to find common ground with both countries.

With relationships with Russia and China reaching new lows and unlikely to improve for the foreseeable future, finding a way to for the United States to work cooperatively with both countries will not be easy. Bridges to constructive engagement have been burned and will be difficult to rebuild. However, the author points out that constituencies for cooperation remain in all three countries, including in government bureaucracies. “As hard as it may be to find common ground in otherwise highly adversarial relationships, it is imperative that the US administration in office after January 2021 make every effort to do so. Cooperation with America’s two great power rivals will not always guarantee success, but the absence of such cooperation will surely increase the risk of failure.”

About the author

Robert Einhorn is a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. Einhorn focuses on arms control (US-Russia and multilateral), nonproliferation and regional security issues (including Iran, the greater Middle East, South Asia, and Northeast Asia), and US nuclear weapons policies and programs.

Before joining Brookings in May 2013, Einhorn served as the US Department of State special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control, a position created by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009. In that capacity, he played a leading role in the formulation and execution of US policy toward Iran’s nuclear program, both with respect to sanctions and negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries. He also helped shape the Obama administration’s overall approach to nonproliferation; supported nonproliferation goals through diplomatic contacts with China, Russia, and key non-aligned countries; and addressed nuclear security and strategic stability challenges in South Asia. He played a key role in the development of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and served as US delegation head in negotiations with South Korea on a successor civil nuclear agreement.

Between 2001 and 2009, Einhorn was a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where he directed the Proliferation Prevention Program. Prior to joining CSIS, he was assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation from 1999 to 2001, deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs from 1992 to 1999, and a member of the State Department policy planning staff from 1986 to 1992. Between 1972 and 1986, he held various positions at the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), including as ACDA’s representative to the strategic arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union. In 1984, he was an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Einhorn holds a bachelor’s in government from Cornell University and a master’s in public affairs and international relations from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

This article expands upon an article to be published in the November 2020 issue of Arms Control Today.

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