Trump and Putin's Race to the Bottom

Stimson Spotlight

Trump and Putin's Race to the Bottom

By Barry M. Blechman

It has been reported by several news outlets that during their infamous phone conversation on March 20th, President Trump complained about Putin’s boasts earlier that month that Russia had developed new kinds of nuclear weapons that could strike the United States and which the U.S. could not defend against.  Trump apparently told Putin that if Russia wanted an arms race with the United States, he would be happy to oblige him, and that the U.S. would win it.  He then boasted about the record-breaking $700 billion U.S. defense budget that had just been passed.  (Russia’s defense budget is estimated at just $70 billion.)

In fact, the U.S. and Russia are already engaged in a nuclear arms race – a nonsensical exercise which accomplishes nothing, contributes to rising political tensions between the two states, and of course implicitly contains a risk that in a crisis or conventional conflict, one state or the other might use nuclear weapons with unknowable, but no doubt profound consequences.  The new arms race contributes nothing because both nations already have the capability to destroy one another, and most of the northern hemisphere, many times over.  It raises tensions because boasts about developing capabilities to destroy another nation make it even more difficult to resolve problems and conflicts.  And the new arms race raises the danger of nuclear use because some of these new weapons are designed to be used on the battlefield and, thus, presumably lower the barriers against nuclear use.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union, of course, raced to develop nuclear capabilities from the end of the Second World War to the 1970s, when they wisely decided to cap their long-range arsenals. The roots of the current nuclear arms race can be traced to the deterioration of Russia’s strategic forces during the economic turmoil and depression in that country during the late 1980s and 1990s.  When Putin became Russia’s president in 2000, he set in motion programs to rebuild Russian nuclear forces.  These programs began to show results around 2010. Attempting to deflect attention from Russia’s inferiority in conventional arms, Putin also emphasized Russia’s willingness to use nuclear weapons in wars and Russia’s military adopted an “escalate to deescalate” nuclear first-use doctrine.

President Obama – briefly committed to eliminating nuclear weapons – apparently felt compelled to respond and launched a U.S. nuclear “modernization” program covering all three components of U.S. strategic forces – bombers, submarines, and land-based missiles.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this program will cost U.S. taxpayers 1.2 trillion inflation-adjusted dollars over the next 30 years.  (More likely it will cost the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of current US taxpayers this amount, given the U.S. Government’s willingness to finance everything through deficit spending.)  President Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review will add to this cost by calling for the development of two new types of nuclear warheads and a new submarine-launched cruise missile. 

The current “NEW START” treaty limiting U.S. and Russian long-range strategic arms will expire in 2021 and given the current state of relations between the two countries, it is hard to imagine that treaty being renewed. If it ends, the current qualitative nuclear arms race will escalate to a contest to increase the size of each side’s nuclear forces – raising the cost and dangers of this insane contest even farther.  This reckless spending will detract from each country’s ability to develop and deploy new technologies that actually are used in ongoing conflicts, such as the wars against terrorist organizations.  And, eventually, it will harm each country’s economies.  Such esteemed figures as the late financier Pete Peterson and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen have called the national debt the foremost threat to the nation’s security!

There is only one winner in the U.S.-Russia nuclear arms race, and that is China.  Spending only modestly on its nuclear forces, China is far busier developing advanced conventional capabilities.  China’s economy, moreover, continues to grow robustly.  Just as China will use the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement to bolster its economic relationships with nations on both sides of the Pacific, it will take advantage of U.S. and Russian preoccupation with nuclear arms to advance its conventional military capabilities relative to theirs and utilize that greater strength to carve out a dominant position in East Asia and, eventually, elsewhere in the world.  The U.S. and Russia are racing to the bottom.  Only China is the winner!    

 

Photo Credit: Kremlin.ru