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.