William Bullitt accompanied President Woodrow Wilson and Colonel Edward House to Paris to negotiate an ambitious peace treaty after the carnage of World War I. Reflecting on the handiwork of vengeful allies in the Versailles Treaty, Bullitt prophetically declared, “This isn’t a treaty of peace… I can see at least eleven wars in it.” The victors in World War II did far better, establishing a progressive international order that fostered economic progress and helped prevent wars between major powers for over half a century.
This international order is under great strain, challenged by pervasive anxiety, growing inequality, regional flash points, anemic economies, and ceaseless refugee flows from war-torn areas. Lesser despots have fallen, opening up ungoverned spaces, while secular strongmen have arisen in lynchpin states like India, Israel, Egypt, the Philippines, and Turkey. Confident leaders have also taken up residence in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing, promising to cure national ailments while building up arms.
These developments play out against a backdrop of declining American standing and increasing domestic divisions since decisively winning the Cold War and easily toppling Saddam Hussein. In retrospect, the 9/11 attacks were a major pivot point. Overreach followed. Subsequent ill-advised and ill-executed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sapped America’s strength, treasury, and influence. President George W. Bush’s crusade to extend Democracy worldwide is now a distant memory.
Relations between major powers are now strained as Vladimir Putin pushes back against NATO expansion and President Xi Jinping seeks dominion over the East and South China Seas. Add to this the black-swan event of Donald Trump’s election, facilitated by Russian hacking, the FBI Director’s interventions, voters who cast ballots for Trump assuming he wouldn’t win and voters who declined to vote for Hillary Clinton, assuming she would.
Republicans on Capitol Hill now widely dismiss the value of diplomacy to reduce nuclear dangers, which President Donald Trump could well accentuate. The prophetic voices of our time might well be those of Mikhail Gorbachev and William J. Perry. Gorbachev, in an essay in Time magazine, bemoans “the militarization of politics,” arms buildups, and leaders who are bellicose, confused, or “at a loss.” Gorbachev warns, “It all looks as if the world is preparing for war.” Perry warns against missiles and warheads that can be launched very quickly and that foster greater illusions of fighting and winning nuclear wars.
At this juncture, it is hard to envision actions to stop this slide, let alone to convince Washington and other capitals to take them. Gorbachev calls on leaders of states with nuclear weapons to gather under the auspices of the United Nations to declare, as he and President Ronald Reagan did in a 1985 Geneva summit that, “Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Those who deride rhetorical gestures of this sort have forgotten, or didn’t experience the bellicose rhetoric and the dangerous nuclear competition of the early 1980s. This joint statement paved the way for these unorthodox leaders to break the back of the nuclear arms race.
Since the United States and Russia adhere to nuclear doctrines allowing first use, it would be useful for Trump and Putin to publicly reaffirm this statement. The leaders of China, India and Pakistan – all poised to significantly expand their nuclear arms capabilities – could be encouraged to join them.
Important pledges can lose their effect unless backed up by deeds. My view, as readers of these posts well know, is that the single most symbolic and practical step that states possessing nuclear weapons could take would be to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear testing for all time. Only three nuclear-armed states have done so—Russia, Great Britain, and France. The United States, China, and Israel have signed but not ratified the Treaty; India, Pakistan, and North Korea haven’t even signed. All are needed for the Treaty to enter into force, lending new credence to global non-proliferation efforts. A chain of ratifications can begin with the United States, followed by China, India, Pakistan, and Israel. President Obama couldn’t hope to gain the necessary Senate votes. President Trump could redefine himself and reduce nuclear dangers by doing so.
Note to readers: A version of this essay appeared in Defense One on February 15th.