Donald Trump: Serious about Arms Control?

, co-director and senior scientist | April 29, 2019, 10:02 am EST
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President Trump seems to understand a major lesson of the past 70 years of the nuclear age: Unconstrained arms races are dangerous and massively expensive.

The Washington Post reports that Trump “has ordered his administration to prepare a push for new arms-control agreements with Russia and China after bristling at the cost of a 21st-century nuclear arms race.” If one country builds more weapons to feel secure, this can cause other countries to feel less secure and lead them to build more weapons in response. This cycle is the classic arms race.

Trump seems to get it. In December he tweeted that he wants “a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race.”

Fortunately, the solution is known: verifiable arms control agreements. Rather than unconstrained action/reaction cycles, agreements increase transparency between countries, limit the growth of arsenals, and set up mechanisms to clarify ambiguities and possible violations.

And it works: The United States and Soviet Union learned this lesson in the 1970s and 1980s as those reaction cycles led them to collectively build more than 60,000 nuclear weapons. A series of arms control agreements have reduced those numbers today to about 1,700 deployed weapons on each side.

Gorbachev and Reagan signing the INF Treaty in 1987  (Source: National Archives)

What Trump Needs to Do

If Trump is serious about avoiding a nuclear arms race—and a nuclear war by extension—here is what he needs to do:

  • A clear first step is to extend the US-Russian New START Treaty, which is set to expire in February 2021 but can be extended for five years without new negotiations. Both countries have cut their nuclear arsenals to meet the treaty’s limits. The treaty has put in place an intrusive verification regime that the US military highly values. Extending this successful treaty will provide time to take next steps.
  • The administration says it wants to go beyond New START and limit other weapons. That makes sense. But the first step is for the United States not to pull out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which strictly limits weapons not covered by New START. After it was signed, the US and Soviet Union destroyed some 2,700 of these nuclear weapons. It is definitely “a bird in the hand” that is still useful as the United States and Russia work to address recent compliance issues.
  • Trump must understand that the US push for defenses against long-range missiles blocks progress on limiting those weapons. When it ratified the New START treaty, Russia said any future agreement must include limits on missile defenses. And when Putin announced several new nuclear weapons last year—including the drone nuclear submarine that the United States would like to stop—it was clear that these weapons are designed to defeat missile defenses

And keep in mind that the main US missile defense system has so far cost some $45 billion, yet continues to fail half of its tests. At the same time, it can be defeated by decoys and other countermeasures. The only thing it seems certain to stop is new arms control agreements. Trump must be serious about limits on defenses if he wants to limit offenses.

  • If Trump wants China to join an arms control treaty with the US and Russia he needs to be willing to think way outside the box. Both countries currently have more than 10 times as many nuclear warheads in their arsenals as does China. And China is concerned about a buildup of US missile defenses. Moreover, why would China agree to join if France and Britain, which have similarly sized arsenals, are not included? Finding incentives and a way to include China in a treaty will take some work.
  • Trump must also replace National Security Advisor John Bolton. Bolton has a long history of blocking arms control: He was behind US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, and George W. Bush’s pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, among others. He has been blamed for undermining recent negotiations with North Korea.

Is Trump Serious?

Time will tell if Trump is serious. This could be a ploy to assuage the public’s growing concerns about instability and nuclear war. He may talk a good arms control game while pushing for agreements that go beyond what Russia and China are prepared to sign up to in the current climate.

But if Trump, like Reagan, understands the dangers and wastefulness of unfettered arms races, there is a lot he can do. After all, when he says “Between Russia and China and us, we’re all making hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including nuclear, which is ridiculous,” he’s almost right. The price tag is actually trillions of dollars.

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