In the past, arms controllers and deterrence boosters compromised on deals that ultimately reduced nuclear dangers. No more. One consequence of the demise of political compromise on Capitol Hill is that existing treaties reducing nuclear arms are threatened with extinction. Donald Trump has announced his intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, citing a Russian violation and the need to counter Chinese missiles. Next up on the chopping block may well be the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), finalized by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev in 2010.
During the Cold War, domestic bargaining between advocates and skeptics of nuclear arms control became ritualized. The Congress authorized expensive “safeguards” and strategic modernization programs while approving arms control agreements. Nuclear weapon strategists and arms controllers were both unhappy with these transactions, but for different reasons. Deterrence strategists were uncomfortable with treaties, while arms controllers disliked spending large sums for strategic modernization programs. Nonetheless, these deals laid the basis for steep nuclear arms reductions when political conditions permitted. Similar tradeoffs occurred for New START’s ratification.
With the revival of strategic competition with Russia and increased tensions with China, the old formula of negotiating new diplomatic accords in return for appropriations for a new generation of strategic arms seems unlikely to work. The more that boosters of nuclear weapon programs take aim at arms reduction treaties, the more those supportive of treaties take aim at strategic modernization programs. If treaties that restrain the nuclear arms competition are killed, then tighter budgets could be used as a surrogate, cutting excessive expenditures and questionable initiatives. This new formula is a work in progress.
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Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center.