Has the United States Abandoned Arms Control?
“This is insane.”
So declared former CIA Director Michael Hayden on hearing the news last week that President Donald Trump was considering pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty. In place since 1992, the treaty permits member states to conduct reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory to verify compliance and increase mutual trust. But Trump accused Russia of acting in bad faith and cheating on its commitments. “Until they adhere,” he announced, “we will pull out.” The president’s statement was the latest in a series of moves that have caused critics like Hayden to worry that he is dismantling arms control agreements that have kept the peace for decades.
Trump’s record, however, suggests he sees little value in the existing regime. As a candidate, Trump railed against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the 2015 deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program. As president, he withdrew from the deal, and the administration has kept up the rhetorical assault ever since. Just this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Iran deal “a failed attempt to appease terrorists.”
The administration also withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty — President Reagan’s signature arms control agreement with the Soviet Union. This treaty was unique because it outlawed a whole class of weapons, rather than simply reducing numbers. But critics claimed that Russia was routinely violating the agreement and called on Trump to let it go. He did.
Finally, Trump is hinting that he will let the New START treaty expire next year, rather than negotiate a long-term extension with Moscow. Signed in 2010, New START placed limits on a range of missiles, bombers, and nuclear warheads. Arms control advocates are urging the administration to act quickly, but White House officials complain that the treaty doesn’t include China and allows Russia to pursue a range of alternative technologies. Critics suspect the administration is simply looking for ways to let New START die, as it did with other arms control agreements.
Why does Trump reject these deals? Perhaps his ego makes him reluctant to enforce any agreement that doesn’t have his name on it. Or maybe he just doesn’t like the Obama administration. “Trump got rid of the Iran nuclear deal,” said a former State Department official, “because it was Barack Obama’s agreement.”
There is probably truth to this. Trump has spent his whole career trying to be the center of attention and he has done little to hide his disdain for Obama. But these arguments cannot account for the longer-term trend in U.S. foreign policy. Recent administrations had mixed records on arms control. In some cases, they tried to strengthen existing agreements, but at other times they argued that it was time to move past Cold War regime. The George W. Bush administration famously abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 despite intense criticism. Bush later signed a landmark nuclear-sharing agreement with India, which was not a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This latter effort was particularly troubling for arms control advocates who believed that it was key to maintaining nuclear stability.
Obama also got crosswise with arms control advocates who expected a stronger commitment to disarmament. He started out by promising to take “concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons,” and he worked hard to complete the New START treaty with Russia. But Obama also shepherded a massive nuclear modernization program during his second term. His plans included life-extension programs for the current generation of aerial bombs and warheads, along with a new generation of cruise missiles, inter-continental ballistic missiles, bombers, and submarines. Obama did so to win support for New START from Senate Republicans, but his actions nonetheless struck observers as a betrayal of his earlier promises and left arms control advocates in dismay.
Seen in this light, Trump’s actions are not such a radical break from the past. As with other issues, his outlandish rhetoric obscures areas of policy continuity. U.S. presidents since Dwight Eisenhower have publicly aspired to disarmament while simultaneously invested in a nuclear posture built around increasingly accurate and lethal weapons. The United States has consistently sought to stay ahead of all other nuclear-armed countries, friends and rivals alike, and has pushed for arms control treaties that lock in U.S. advantages. Ike’s original Open Skies proposal, after all, promised an intelligence windfall at a time when Soviet security depended on keeping the Americans in the dark about its relative weakness. And if the Kremlin rejected a deal that promised transparency and peace, then Washington could claim a propaganda victory. In this and other cases, U.S. leaders favored arms control when they believed they could use it to achieve an American advantage. Trump’s talk is unsubtle, but his commitment to maintaining nuclear superiority is not unusual.
What does all this suggest about the future of nuclear weapons in international politics? And what does it mean for the future of U.S. nuclear policy? The answer to both questions depends in large part on how we define “arms control,” a term whose meaning has divided scholars for decades. Broadly speaking, there are three schools of thought.
The first school envisions arms control as a path to disarmament. This appeals to common sense, given that arms control agreements seek to freeze the production of new weapons, limit the deployment of new forces, reduce the size of arsenals, and in some cases eliminate whole classes of weapons. Arms control agreements, seen in this respect, are piecemeal steps towards the ultimate goal of disarmament. It takes seriously Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which calls for nuclear-armed states to make a good faith effort to eliminate their arsenals. Arms control is both a practical path towards that end, and a sign of good faith.
The second school envisions arms control as a path to strategic stability. This means reducing the incentives for states to engage in peacetime arms racing, and removing the temptation to strike first in a crisis. Arms control agreements that make it difficult for anyone to plausibly “win” a nuclear war serve both purposes. Stability will obtain when states agree to build and deploy only weapons that guarantee retaliation rather than promise victory. Public justification of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (1972) emphasized this logic. The reason for banning missile defenses was to demolish any fantasies that the superpowers could win a nuclear exchange in any meaningful sense.
The third school envisions arms control as a path to comparative advantage rather than collective security. States use arms control negotiations to achieve relative gains, either in terms of numbers or technology. For example, the Washington Naval Treaty (1922) obligated signatories to limit their naval tonnage according to an agreed ratio. Although advocates portrayed negotiations as an effort to avoid repeating the pre-World War I naval arms race, states used the treaty to lock in national advantages.
Similar motives lay just under the surface of Cold War arms control negotiations. Some observers celebrated the era of détente in the 1970s as the time when superpowers sought to let the air out of their dangerous rivalry. New research, however, shows that successive U.S. administrations sought to use arms control diplomacy to maneuver the Soviet Union into a position of qualitative weakness. For the United States, success at the bargaining table would produce benefits that went beyond the nuclear balance. It would discourage Moscow from adventurism, and in so doing enhance the credibility of extended deterrence. In the event of war, it would allow the United States to reduce the costs in lives and treasure. And it would prompt Moscow to spend extravagantly on countermeasures, putting its economy under stress it could not bear.
Past presidents viewed arms control talks as a form of competition, not a forum for comity. In this sense, Trump is not so different from his predecessors, who also sought negotiations to maximize U.S. qualitative advantages. What makes Trump different is that he is dispensing with the pretext that arms control serves other purposes, or that strategic stability is intrinsically valuable. Trump sees himself as a dealmaker, not an institutionalist, and craves flexibility above all. Stability implies sacrificing flexibility on the altar of predictability, and that is something the president cannot abide.
Some observers applaud this approach. From their perspective, the devotion to stability leaves the United States vulnerable to authoritarian rivals who have no qualms about cheating on arms control agreements. In their view, adversaries will grow stronger as America sits idle, emboldened by Washington’s passive response to treaty violations and other provocations. Embracing stability even in the face of their deception is a recipe for disaster.
Trump’s bluntness might also help the United States escape charges of hypocrisy. U.S. presidents since Eisenhower have pledged to work toward disarmament; they have also expanded and improved the U.S. arsenal. Observers naturally wonder if they mean what they say. Trump’s straightforward appeal to the U.S. national interest might put some of those questions to rest, at least as long as he stays in office.
For the time being, the most important argument in support of Trump’s approach is that it creates bargaining leverage. Negotiating strength, according to this logic, comes from a demonstrated willingness to walk away. Trump has repeatedly and loudly declared his willingness to do so, while holding out the prospect of renewing discussions later to achieve a better deal. Trump’s flexibility means the door is never completely closed, so long as negotiating partners are ready to make concessions. This has been the case for Iran, North Korea, and now Russia. “We’re going to pull out,” the president said last week, “and they’re going to come back and want to make a deal.”
The question, however, is whether this gamble for leverage will pay off. So far it has not. Iran has increased its stockpile of enriched uranium despite “maximum pressure” from the White House. Russia has continued to pursue what the Department of Defense calls a “comprehensive modernization of its nuclear arsenal.” China is also investing more in nuclear weapons, as the administration acknowledges. There have been no better deals with Iran or North Korea, and it is unclear why Russia would agree to one today. The administration’s swagger has not caused U.S. adversaries to turn back the clock on enrichment or scuttle weapon-modernization plans. At best, the White House can point to North Korea’s testing moratorium in place since 2017, but Pyongyang has recently intimated that it may start again.
One likely reason for these poor results is that an outspoken commitment to flexibility makes it hard to convince other states that the administration will honor its promises. Compelling adversaries to voluntarily reduce their capabilities is only likely to work if they are confident they will not be punished as a result. Trump’s message — that everything is always open to renegotiation — implies that he is temperamentally unwilling to accept a long-term commitment to restraint. Under these conditions, they have no reason to accept meaningful limits.
Trump’s unapologetic embrace of nationalism also makes it hard to explain why arms control agreements are mutually beneficial. The White House has repeatedly argued, for example, that any future START treaty must include China. But by casting its arguments only in terms of U.S. gains, it is probably impossible to convince Beijing to cap its growing nuclear stockpile. As Caitlin Talmadge recently pointed out, Chinese leaders will almost certainly be wary of such an overture unless the administration can talk credibly about Chinese interests.
The irony is that Trump’s nationalist bluster works against the national interest. The United States has used arms control for a number of purposes over the years, including the pursuit of its own parochial goals. The process has required U.S. concessions, but the long-term results have been overwhelmingly positive: The number of nuclear powers has stayed the same, the number of nuclear warheads has gone down, and the U.S. qualitative lead has increased. By publicly eschewing the pretense of mutual gains, Trump is putting U.S. gains at risk.
Joshua Rovner is associate professor in the School of International Service at American University.