Michael KreponYear End Blues

The year ends on many somber notes – the election of Donald Trump, his modus operandi and appointments to senior positions, the push on Capitol Hill to expand national missile defenses and to once again explore space-based systems, and the deaths of Tom Schelling, Sid Drell, and John Newhouse. Many signs now point to the continued unraveling of the extraordinary accomplishments of arms control during and immediately after the Cold War.

It’s still possible that Donald Trump will surprise us by doing deals with Vladimir Putin, who cannot afford an arms race and who could react to another push for space-based weapons as his predecessors have, by making concessions. Trump is also free to employ plot twists to boost ratings by asking the Senate to consent to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But Trump’s stunning Electoral College victory, while losing the popular referendum by an unprecedented three million votes, opens doors for the anti-arms control crowd to create more wreckage. Plans are once again being dusted off to “strengthen” nuclear deterrence in deeply unsettling ways.

Schelling and Drell were notable figures in taming the superpower arms race and avoiding the battlefield use of nuclear weapons – objectives that most Americans believed to be highly unlikely when A-bombs and then H-bombs made their dreaded appearance. Schelling helped to formulate the precepts of arms control. Drell applied his formidable expertise in physics to make the case for treaties and against hare-brained schemes. Newhouse chronicled these achievements.

Arms control was essential because deterrence amplified anxieties without addressing them. Impulses to strengthen deterrence meant multi-megaton bombs, backpack bombs, shoulder-fired nuclear artillery, and thousands of warheads on high alert and situated at the forward edge of battle. Deterrence, in other words, was poised to fail; for it to succeed, deterrence needed to be accompanied with the concept and practice of arms control.

One of the foundational accomplishments of the arms control community in the late 1960s and early 1970s was to persuade enough of their fellow citizens and Members of Congress that defending against the most deadly weapons known to humanity wasn’t worth the effort and expense. That trying to intercept bloated arsenals of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles was too technically challenging, and that trying to do so would only increase the number of warheads headed their way.

The only hope of keeping the peace between superpowers armed to excess was through accepting mutual vulnerability – mutual assured destruction. The acronym MAD perfectly described this circumstance. The notion of two scorpions trapped in the same bottle was, indeed, mad, but it helped to keep the nuclear threshold from being crossed. During the Cold War, concepts to escape from deterrence were periodically advanced, but they were either flights of fantasy or prescriptions for even more of an arms race.

Those who didn’t live through these debates will have a hard time appreciating how difficult it was to persuade skeptics to accept the counterintuitive arguments upon which the precepts of arms control were based. By dint of extraordinary effort, the necessity for arms control took hold on Capitol Hill, against the proposals for nation-wide defenses in the Johnson and Nixon Administrations. Defense economics and public opposition in some of the regions to be defended also militated against these ambitious schemes.

Limited defenses of national territory against accidental launches or small-scale, unsophisticated attacks were manageable in economic and domestic political terms. The Kremlin as well as President Nixon and Henry Kissinger reluctantly curtailed their preferences and signed the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty along with a companion agreement providing the first ever, but still too loose controls over strategic offensive forces.

The push back started quickly, led by members of the U.S. negotiating team who were aggrieved by Nixon’s and Kissinger’s tactics and upset with the SALT I accords. Opposition grew when it soon became apparent that constraining national missile defenses was insufficient to constrain strategic offenses, which continued to be fueled by powerful domestic constituencies.

It took two more decades for subsequent treaties to greatly reduce strategic offensive forces. Ironically, the success of arms control was one of the contributing factors to its demise. Many took for granted treaties mandating steep cuts after the Cold War ended. When the Russian Federation was supine, arms control was acknowledged to be transitionally useful in safeguarding fissile material stocks and helping to pay for dismantling the Kremlin’s excess force structure. But these accomplishments seemed rooted in another time and place. When Vladimir Putin began to push back against the post-Cold War status quo and when Beijing began muscle-flexing around its periphery, hawks on Capitol Hill reverted to form, convincing themselves that diplomacy could not reduce nuclear threats – just like when arms control was initially conceptualized. Schemes to escape from deterrence have again been revived.

This reflex constitutes a willful lack of recognition of how useful arms control has been in preventing mushroom clouds. Republican Presidents did the heaviest lifting to tame and downsize the nuclear arms competition, but most Republicans now disregard this inheritance. In truth, the practice of arms control was the most unheralded accomplishment of the Cold War. To think that arms control was only grudgingly necessary in the past is to jeopardize the future.

Disbelievers in MAD will now populate the second and third tiers of the executive branch, doing their best to bankrupt Moscow once again while seeking to escape from a deterrence relationship with Beijing, thereby accelerating the growth of China’s strategic forces. They will seek to chip away, if not walk away, from the New START and INF treaties. They will try to remove the CTBT from the Senate’s calendar and reduce funding for the Treaty’s remarkable global monitoring system. There will be another push for the resumption of underground tests of new warhead designs for very marginal, tailored effects.

If diehards have their way, we will again experiment with nuclear deterrence and missile defenses without treaties. Now there’s a radical concept — far more radical than arms control.


  1. Dave (History)

    I love the notion that arms control is a victim of its own success. The bipolar world sure was easier to wrap your head around. What happens when the two scorpions are small enough to fit in the JV bottle with the rest of the little guys?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Well put.
      The fewer the scorpions, the better — that’s for sure.
      The Mad Man theory that Trump is reprieving works when dealing with a rational actor. Doesn’t work well with a jittery novice. While we are focusing on North Korea, there’s very little coverage in the US media of troubling developments on the subcontinent.
      Putin’s predecessors could do deals to put a lid on space-based missile defenses because they could count on Dems in Congress to block hare-brained schemes. Now Repubs control Congress.
      We’re in for a rocky ride.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      I don’t know that we’ve ever had rational actors in the sense that the theories demand. Not a pleasant thought.

    • Dave (History)

      Putting mad men aside for a moment, I was actually thinking about the limits of arms control as we move into the near future. I think the general consensus is that things get ugly when we start adding scorpions to the bottle. From the perspective of the generation that doesn’t remember much prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seems that the path for arms control in the past was relatively simple (maybe this is too simplistic):
      – In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, both the US and Russia were eliminating redundant systems as weapons became more accurate and more reliable. Nobody was questioning MAD, so the natural attrition of old systems was an easy win.
      – After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia didn’t have the funding to maintain a large arsenal and the US was no longer concerned with covering a wide range of nuclear options. It’s not hard to argue that decreased military requirements (at least those deterring great power conflict) are what led to the last 20 years of nuclear reductions.

      As we go forward, the interests of a multilateral community will not line up quite so neatly:
      – The US can afford nuclear reductions thanks to overwhelming conventional superiority, but every other nuclear power views their nuclear/strategic forces as a necessary augment for conventional scenarios that they’re trying to prevent (except maybe the UK, whose deterrent seems largely focused on nuking Moscow).
      – Weapons don’t break down by class easily in a multilateral situation. The US enjoys a geographic advantage over all other nuclear powers, so we can comfortably argue against short range delivery systems as destabilizing, but Russia needs to cover Chinese contingencies, China needs to cover Indian contingencies, and India needs to cover Pakistan. That doesn’t bode well for the future of the INF as stockpiles slowly increase in South East Asia.

      I think there’s still room for another round or two of modest “START-style” reductions between the US and Russia. Beyond that, I’m concerned it would take some Bismarckian level diplomacy to simply keep a lid on current global stockpiles. Even if the second and third tiers of the incoming executive branch were committed to the continuation of START and INF, would the future of arms control focus on holding that line? Maybe that would be enough.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Many thanks for your thoughtful comment.
      I agree with you that one of the many challenges ahead will be to re-conceptualize arms control.
      Best wishes,

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      One way to re-conceptualize arms control is to borrow some economic concepts. Every nuclear weapon imposes a negative externality in the form of a risk of nuclear destruction to other countries and to the world. An economic solution is to impose a tax on it.

      The world could impose a tax on all nuclear weapons, with proceeds to go to the non-nuclear weapons states. The tax would provide an incentive for each nuclear-armed nation to reduce the number of its nuclear weapons, perhaps even to zero. The payment of proceeds to non-nuclear weapon states would provide an incentive for those nations to remain nuclear weapons free.

  2. Mark Gubrud (History)

    You describe the byzantine proliferation of nuclear weapons and comment that “Deterrence, in other words, was poised to fail; for it to succeed, deterrence needed to be accompanied with the concept and practice of arms control.” That is so true, whether the weapons involved are specifically nuclear or not; it is the most essential point, and it is true not only of deterrence but also of such related concepts as stability, survivability and resilience.

    I don’t believe it is correct to say that Putin’s predecessors reacted to a US “push for space-based weapons… by making concessions.” The USSR studied the Star Wars phenomenon and concluded that it did not pose a serious threat to their deterrent. They already possessed rudimentary ASAT technology, and did commence preparations to develop a new generation of more capable ASATs, but never had to follow through with that. Gorbachev sought to end the nuclear arms race both because he wanted to reform the economy to better satisfy popular needs and demands, and because he feared the danger of nuclear war. And his regime collapsed because of its own contradictions and dissatisfaction both among the elites and the people, and especially among Eastern European nations who viewed communism as having been imposed on them by Russia. I think it was false to claim in the 1980s and 90s that Star Wars had defeated the Evil Empire and it is even more dangerous now to revive that myth especially as the pretense that US missile defenses are “not aimed at Russia” is being dropped.

    It is also dangerous to suggest that US pursuit of space weaponry now will lead to anything other than Russian and Chinese development of the technologies they’ve tested in recent years into full-scale arsenals capable of wreaking havoc on US satellites, and increasing risk of a major-power war starting or escalating in space.

    It is also not quite accurate to say that “Limited defenses of national territory against accidental launches or small-scale, unsophisticated attacks were manageable in economic and domestic political terms.” The reality is that a nation that has even a single missile that can reach an American city poses a credible threat which cannot be discounted. If it has ten, then it is nearly certain that one or more will get through. The same applies to accidental or unauthorized launches. Reducing the damage caused by short-range non-nuclear ballistic missiles by imposing some fractional attrition rate on them may make military sense, and there are plausible arguments about the value of even national ballistic missile defense against nuclear threats, but neither capability is something that can be relied on either in military planning or policy making.

    What can be relied on is that if Trump’s administration turns embarks on an unrestrained arms race, Russia and China will respond in kind. I don’t think it would make sense to try to keep insisting on compromise positions like limited missile defense or limited pursuit of space weapons in the hope that Putin can’t afford an arms race and will make concessions. It makes sense to warn of the extreme madness and danger of this course, a danger even greater than the past because of the progress of technology, the decline of American industrial primacy, and the rise of artificial intelligence, which threatens to remove “the interposition of human judgment” that saved our skins so many times during the old cold war.


  3. Jonah Speaks (History)

    “The only hope of keeping the peace between superpowers armed to excess was through accepting mutual vulnerability – mutual assured destruction.” Ultimately, this MAD concept needs to go. It is much too vulnerable to setting off a nuclear war.

    One way to reduce the nuclear risk is to place Congressional limits on Presidential power to start a nuclear war. For example, Congress could require that any presidential order to launch nuclear weapons must be seconded by one or more additional people. Congress could also consider whether any additional limits should be imposed, such as no launch on warning, no first use, or no first strike.

    President Trump with his finger on the nuclear trigger may not wish to meet the same campaign issue twice. He may welcome initiatives that present him as a hero for enacting legislation that would prevent both him and future Presidents from exercising this vast power impulsively or foolishly.

  4. John F. Chick (History)


    Wasn’t Ronald Reagan the ultimate disbeliever in MAD (he called it immoral and was stunned to learn that his only option in the event of an attack by the Soviets was massive retaliation), and didn’t his rejection of MAD lead to his decision to pursue an arms race that included SDI, which then led to the Soviets offering a zero option in exchange for killing SDI (or at least confining to the laboratory) ? I offer a simplified chain of causation here, but I believe Reagan’s success in achieving historic arms reductions began with his views on MAD.

    Happy New Year.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Yes, RR was a disbeliever in MAD.There weren’t too many true believers around him. But he still got plenty of support from ams control abolitionists and those who stood to gain from the pursuit of missile defense-related schemes. The wondrous outcomes you mention became possible when the pragmatists around RR beat back the arms control abolitionists and when Gorbachev arrived. Gorbachev figured out quickly that his economy was on weak foundations (serious overspending for the military will do that for you). Subsequently, he figured out the the easiest way to kill SDI was indirectly — by agreeing to deep cuts. Not exactly the way this is diagramed in the textbooks. But I will partly concede your point: thinking out of the box led to big successes.
      Happy New Year,

  5. Michael Krepon (History)
    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      He was, according to many people, the original proponent of the ABM Treaty, and he played important roles in many national debates, always on the side of sanity. He was a tireless campaigner who worked with whatever he had, which was often not much more than his own energy and self-assurance. He was a giant of what we now call civil society.