Even as the world’s nuclear-armed states squander tens of billions of dollars each year on nuclear weapons amid an epic and costly pandemic, the Trump administration is compounding the damage to global stability through ill-considered, unilateral actions that are destroying major pillars of the international security architecture. At risk are key agreements and arms control treaties that Republican and Democratic administrations have built to safeguard not only the United States but also its closest allies.
Multiple actions and comments just this month signal the administration’s intentions. In an interview published May 7 in The Washington Times, President Donald Trump’s new arms control envoy, Marshall Billingslea, suggested the United States may abandon the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is due to expire in February 2021 unless Trump takes up a Russian offer to extend the agreement by five years. New START verifiably limits each of the two nations’ long-range (i.e. strategic) nuclear arsenals to no more than 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers.
But instead of extending New START, which effectively caps Russia’s strategic arsenal, Billingslea is doubling down on Trump’s gamble that Russia accept U.S. terms for a new arms control agreement involving not only Russia but also China. In remarks during an online discussion with the Hudson Institute on May 21, the envoy said the United States is prepared to spend Russia and China “into oblivion” in order to win a new nuclear arms race, if they don’t agree to Trump’s terms for a new deal.
Then on Friday night, May 22, The Washington Post revealed that senior Trump officials recently discussed the option of conducting the first U.S. nuclear test explosion in 28 years as a way to pressure the Russian and Chinese leaders to accept the U.S. terms. The idea itself is provocative and reckless. A U.S. nuclear test blast would certainly not advance efforts to rein in Chinese and Russian nuclear arsenals or create a better environment for negotiations. Instead, it would break the de facto global nuclear test moratorium, likely trigger nuclear testing by other states, and set off a new nuclear arms race in which everyone would come out a loser.
Unless the Trump administration comes to its senses and adjusts course—or a new presidential administration led by Joe Biden is elected and pursues a more enlightened approach—New START may disappear, other critical nuclear risk reduction agreements may fall by the wayside, and the door to an ever-more dangerous and costly global nuclear arms race will swing wide open.
Trump’s Record of Failure
The Trump administration came into office without a clear strategy to deal with what arguably is the paramount responsibility for a U.S. president: managing and reducing nuclear weapons risks. Trump arrived in the Oval Office with an irrational dislike for anything that President Barack Obama had been involved in creating but without a viable strategy for coming up with something better.
The administration’s official nuclear policy document, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, barely discusses arms control as a risk reduction tool. It passively states that “the United States will remain receptive to future arms control negotiations if conditions permit.” The result has been the dismantling of key nuclear and security agreements and failing efforts to make progress on new ones.
In 2018, the Trump administration unilaterally and formally withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a.k.a. the Iran nuclear deal, and re-imposed nuclear-related sanctions in violation of the agreement, despite the fact that Iran was meeting all of the restrictions mandated by the seven-party deal. The JCPOA had been a major success: it curtailed Iran’s capacity to produce bomb-grade nuclear material; requires a very robust international inspection system; and it prevented a major proliferation crisis and potentially a war. But Trump insisted the deal was not good enough. In addition to resuming sanctions that had been waived under the deal, he demanded more concessions from Tehran. The result; no new deal, no negotiations, and Iranian retaliatory steps to bypass many of the nuclear restrictions that were set by the original deal.
Last year, the Trump administration withdrew from the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which eliminated 2,692 U.S. and Soviet ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles and prohibited either country from deploying these weapons. The withdrawal followed a brief and perfunctory effort by the United States to find a resolution to allegations that Russia tested and deployed a missile in excess of the treaty’s 500 km range limit and Russian concerns the United States might use missile defense launchers in Europe for INF-prohibited offensive missiles. The U.S. withdrawal doesn’t eliminate the Russian missiles of concern, knows as the SSC-8, and now both sides are free to test and deploy INF-class missiles, which are inherently destabilizing because their relatively short time-to-target capability increases the risk of miscalculation in a crisis.
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also announced the administration’s intention to unilaterally withdraw from yet another international security treaty that helps to keep the post-Cold War peace with Russia and is widely supported by the United States’ allies in Europe: the 1992 Open Skies Treaty. Open Skies helped preserve the post-Cold War peace by allowing the 34 participating nations, including the United States and Russia, to fly unarmed observation aircraft over one another’s territory. This helps preserve a measure of transparency and trust, thereby enhancing stability and reducing the risk of conflict.
Like many treaties, especially one involving hundreds of flights over others’ territories, there have been troublesome implementation disputes, including restrictions set by Moscow on flight over its Kaliningrad enclave. Such problems can and should have been resolved through professional, pragmatic diplomacy, not by abandoning treaty commitments.
In a rebuke of Washington, 11 European nations, including France and Germany, issued a statement on May 22 expressing “regret” about the U.S. decision. They said they will continue to implement the treaty, which “remains functioning and useful.”
Though the Open Skies Treaty won’t necessarily die without the United States, it would be wounded. And the U.S. stands to lose valuable capabilities that cannot be replaced with other intelligence tools. Open Skies flights provide valuable information about Russian military exercises, they have helped counter Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and they have been used by the United States to overfly Russia’s former nuclear weapons test site.
Is New START Next?
On Feb. 5, shortly after the next presidential inauguration, New START is due to expire unless extended by mutual agreement “for a period of no more than five years unless it is superseded earlier by a subsequent agreement,” as allowed for in Article XIV of the treaty.
With eight months left before the expiration date, there is simply not enough time to negotiate, sign and ratify a new follow-on agreement. And New START is too important to throw away.
U.S. military and intelligence officials greatly value New START’s warhead and delivery-system ceilings and the associated monitoring and verification provisions, which provide predictability and transparency and help promote a stable nuclear deterrence posture vis-à-vis Russia.
Without the New START extension, the United States and Russia will be without limitations on their nuclear stockpiles for the first time since 1972. An already difficult relationship between the two nations will become far worse. Potentially, each side could rapidly upload – within months – hundreds of strategic warheads on their land- and sea-based strategic missile systems and exceed the original treaty limits. Without the treaty’s robust verification, on-site monitoring, and information-exchange requirements, each side’s confidence in assessing the other’s nuclear capabilities and plans would diminish.
For these and other reasons, all U.S. allies, in NATO and in East Asia, support the treaty’s extension. And among Americans, 80 percent of the public, based on recent polls, say they support the treaty’s extension. A bipartisan coalition in Congress supports extending New START.
In a video appearance on May 20, President Ronald Reagan’s former secretary of state, George Schultz, called on the White House to extend New START. “It’s up to us, the U.S. Let’s get going.”
But with the clock winding down on the treaty, Trump and his team continue to rebuff President Vladimir Putin’s offer to extend New START. In his Hudson Institute remarks, Billingslea made clear the administration is not satisfied with New START and may not extend it. “Any potential extension of our existing obligations [i.e. New START] must be tied to progress towards a new era of arms control,” Billingslea said, without defining “progress.”
The goal of “a new era of arms control,” he says, is a new agreement that limits both Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons and its tactical nuclear weapons, and that also involves China. Experts have debated and discussed how to move beyond talks on bilateral U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reductions to third-country nuclear arsenals for some time. The practical challenge is how and when. Tough rhetoric from U.S. officials will not, by itself, deliver results, given the fact that Bejing has never been part of such a negotiation and has a nuclear stockpile of about 300 nuclear weapons, which is less than one-tenth the size of the U.S. and Russian arsenals.
Not surprisingly, senior Chinese officials have repeatedly said they are not interested in an arms control deal so long as Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals remain orders of magnitude larger than theirs. Russian officials say they are open to talks with China, but it is up to the United States to bring China to the table.
When asked what should motivate the Chinese to join U.S. and Russian officials in arms control talks, Billingslea argued that “if China wants to be a great power — and we know it has that self-image — it needs to behave like one. It must demonstrate the will and the ability to reverse its destabilizing nuclear buildup, and it should engage us bilaterally and trilaterally.”
Really? Maybe that argument works for Kim Jong-un, who craves the legitimacy that is conferred by direct talks with Trump. But that isn’t going to persuade Chinese President Xi Jinping to agree to talks with Washington on unspecified limitations on China’s arsenal.
New Types of Russian Weapons Systems
As for U.S. and Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons, negotiations to account for, reduce, and eliminate those arms are overdue, but they won’t be easy either. Russian officials say they are prepared to do so, but only if U.S. leaders are willing to address Russian concerns, including U.S. missile defenses—an issue U.S. officials say is non-negotiable.
Trump officials also say they are worried that several new types of Russian strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems may not be covered by New START. “They should simply wrap those programs up and discard them,” Billingslea told The Washington Times.
Billingslea is either ignoring or is ignorant of the fact that Moscow announced earlier this year that New START would, in fact, cover two of those new Russian systems: Sarmat, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, and Avangard, a hypersonic glide vehicle. Without an extension of New START, these weapons, like all of Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons, would not be limited by any treaty. The other new Russian weapons—a nuclear-armed long-range torpedo and a nuclear-powered cruise missile—are still under development. Independent experts estimate they will not be ready for deployment before 2026, which would be after the maximum period New START could be extended in any case.
At the close of his May 21 Hudson appearance, Billingslea warned Russia and China that if they don’t agree to Trump’s terms, “the president has made clear that we have a tried and true practice here. We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion. If we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it,” Billingslea claimed.
No One “Wins” Arms Races
Such bravado ignores the fact that the White House doesn’t approve federal spending, no country can afford an all-out nuclear arms race, and no one “wins” arms races.
The estimated price tag for the U.S. plan to replace and upgrade its nuclear arsenal is currently estimated to be around $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years. This plan was excessive, unaffordable and unsustainable before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now, with the exploding federal debt, the need for trillions more spending for economic stimulus and relief, plus the other demands of the $700 billion plus annual defense budget, Congress will want to — and will need to — delay, trim, or even cancel some of the major elements of the nuclear modernization plan. Options for trimming the scale and the massive cost can be pursued in a way that maintains the U.S. nuclear force at New START levels, or at lower levels as part of a strategy for further U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions.
A Better Way
Trump’s impulse to pursue more ambitious nuclear arms control talks is laudable; attempts to cajole adversaries with threats of further treaty withdrawals or nuclear test explosions are not. Negotiations to achieve deeper, verifiable reductions in all types of U.S. and Russian weapons are not a new idea, and they are very much overdue. After all, in 2013 Obama sought such talks to achieve a further one-third cut in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, but Putin rejected the idea.
Engaging China and the other nuclear-armed states more deeply in the nuclear disarmament enterprise is also important for international peace and security. Such negotiations, however, if they are to actually start and are to be successful, need to be pursued smartly and without threats of arms racing. They require persistence and skill, as they will complex and time-consuming.
At the moment, team Trump has no realistic chance of concluding a new agreement along these lines before New START is due to expire. It would be irresponsible to gamble away New START, or to conduct a nuclear test explosion, in a desperate attempt to coerce unilateral concessions from China and Russia on a new arms control deal. But that is what Trump’s circle of advisors seem to be contemplating.
Instead, if Trump were to agree to extend New START by five years, he would create the time and the necessary environment for a follow-on deal with Russia that addresses other issues of mutual concern, including tactical nuclear weapons and missile defenses. A New START extension also could put pressure on China to provide more information about its nuclear weapons stockpile, and perhaps agree to freeze the overall size of its nuclear arsenal or agree to limit a certain class of weapons, such as nuclear-armed cruise missiles.
The decisions made in the next few months will determine whether we face an even more complex and dangerous nuclear future, or a slightly more stable one with good options for halting and reversing the nuclear weapons competition and the risks that entails.