Donald Trump has already disrupted the global regime for managing nuclear arms. Should he succeed in winning a second term in the White House, he might well transform that regime entirely. And transformation is long overdue.
Nuclear arms control aims to diminish the likelihood of nuclear conflict. There are two very different views of how to do this: one focuses on process, the other on outcomes.
In the early years after World War II, Washington briefly toyed with the idea of “atomic diplomacy.” After all, America had a monopoly on atomic weapons, so maybe the United States could use the threat of nuclear attack to press the Russians to be reasonable. That notion didn’t last long.
After Stalin got the bomb and the Cold War turned frigid, America started to build out its arsenal. President Dwight Eisenhower decided to heavily invest in a nuclear deterrent, figuring strategic forces were cheaper than conventional ones. John Kennedy followed as president, in part by a campaign promise to fix “the missile gap.”
In reality, the U.S. nuclear arsenal outmatched the Soviets’ in the early 1960s, but we built more weapons anyway. Moscow scrambled to catch-up, even risking deploying nuclear weapons in the Western Hemisphere sparking the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
That crisis helped both Washington and Moscow figure out that a winner-take-all arms race maybe wasn’t the best idea. Both sides started giving more serious thought to managing, rather than winning, the arms race. In 1963, America, the Soviet Union and Great Britain signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, underwater or in space. Kennedy considered the test-ban one of his greatest foreign policy achievements.
Paul Nitze, who had helped fashion the case for building out the U.S. nuclear arsenal, became one of the leading proponents for arms control. Nitze served on the delegation to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) from 1969 to 1973. (On the other hand, he opposed the ratification of SALT II in 1979.)
This is where the visions of arms control really started to diverge. One side argued it was the regime itself that was crucial, that as long as the two sides were talking and working within an arms control framework, it was possible to mitigate the threat of nuclear war. The other side focused more on outcomes, arguing that arms control was only useful if there were actually “controls” that were honored and diminished threats.
The reality is that, through the 1980s, arms control didn’t eliminate one nuclear weapon.
Then came Ronald Reagan.
Reagan believed in outcomes over process.
And he truly believed that nuclear weapons were the scourge of mankind. He wanted to make them irrelevant to strategic competition. Hence his commitment to missile defense and real weapons reductions. This is all described well in Paul Lettow’s Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (2006).
It is worth mentioning Reagan, not only because he represents a different strand in the DNA of arms control, but because he is a formative influence on Trump. Trump rose as a prominent businessmen and public figure during Reagan’s presidency and in many respects has modeled his strategic thinking on Reagan’s. This is reflected in Trump’s adoption of Reagan’s “peace through strength” mantra, as well as his sweeping vision of making nuclear weapons irrelevant.
It is also worth noting the sharp contrast between the Reagan-Trump approach and that of the last administration. The arms control debate became almost moribund in the 1990s. Developments in India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran led nuclear experts to fret far more about nuclear proliferation. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aggressive attitude towards the West, however, put arms control back on the agenda. Obama responded with an approach that pleased traditional arms control advocates but accomplished little.
Obama was a process guy. He shared the hope of a world without nuclear weapons, embracing an approach called “global zero,” under which the United States would try to foster denuclearization by minimizing America’s reliance on a strategic deterrent. He signed the New START and ignored Russian violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement.
Unfortunately, all this accomplished was to contribute to a strategic imbalance: Russia and China expanded and modernized their nuclear arsenals while America allowed its deterrent to atrophy. Even before the end of Mr. Obama’s presidency, it was clear that the campaign for global zero was a bust.
The Age of Trump
Trump has been pretty consistent in how he has tried to address all the big national security challenges—and yes, his approach has been rather Reaganesque. On the one hand, he demonstrates a capacity to defend U.S. interests. On the other, he offers a diplomatic option as a means to achieve a stable, sustainable resolution of conflict. Reagan, too, took this approach when, for example, he deployed INF systems in Europe as a precursor to negotiating the complete elimination of that class of weapons with the Soviet Union.
Like Reagan, Trump believes that in a strategic arms competition America is best off if it establishes that it can defend itself through a mix of offensive and defensive assets. The United States must demonstrate a missile defense that can protect against nuclear attack as well as the capability to retaliate with modernized nuclear weapons. While Trump hasn’t yet built out missile defenses to deal with strategic threats, clearly that is the direction he is headed. Meanwhile, the administration has actively pursued modernizing the triad (bombers, missiles, and submarines) and the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
On the arms control front, Trump has called out Putin for cheating on the INF treaty. Furthermore, in response, Washington withdrew from that agreement this year. It is also likely that, if re-elected, Trump will withdraw the United States from the New START—a treaty that unfairly advantages the Russians.
None of this means that Trump is anti-arms control or wants a new arms race. Rather, he is following Reagan’s proven formula of defense. He wants to show a credible nuclear deterrent and then set about putting into place arms control agreements that actually reduce threats.
Here is the Trumpian wrinkle. Trump knows there is no hope of erecting a realistic global arms control regime that doesn’t include China. The size, scope, and future of China’s nuclear arsenal are nothing if not opaque. Given that China is now a global power with global interests, that reality alone ought to be concerning. Gaining greater transparency on China’s arsenal will be key to achieving strategic stability in the future.
Washington also has to think about its allies. Extended deterrence is a key component of the U.S. security umbrella in Europe and an important factor in regional stability. This will be increasingly true in the Indo-Pacific as well, where American key strategic partners and allies include Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan and India.
China’s arsenal ought to be troubling Russia as well because both countries possess a lot of nuclear weapons that can reach each other. Though Beijing and Moscow cooperate today, the China-Russia détente may be much less stable than many believe.
Having an arms control regime without the three largest powers participating makes about as much sense as having two musketeers. It’s anachronistic to think a U.S.-Russia strategic agreement alone will seriously contribute to stability, let alone to reductions in nuclear forces.
One can make the case that Beijing has zero interest in U.S.-Russian-Chinese arms control—and today that makes sense. There is also an argument that we should not expect Putin to be reasonable on these issues anytime soon, which is also the case.
But none of this is to say that working towards a global arms control framework is a bad idea. Arguably now is exactly the right time to start thinking about what this framework might look like, what it might accomplish, how it might be implemented.
Don’t expect bold moves from either Moscow or Beijing until they know if Trump is coming back. If he doesn’t, they won’t know exactly what they will be dealing with. If he does come back, they know very well what to expect.
If Trump is successful in resetting the geopolitical table in great power competition, one could envision a future time when it would make sense for both Russia and China to limit nuclear competition rather than enter a debilitating arms race that they well might lose. When that moment comes, America should be ready. Trump is setting the stage for that future.
This piece originally appeared in The National Interest