Michael KreponA World Preparing for Wars

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.


  1. Dave (History)

    As much as I support a global nuclear test ban, the language in this treaty is weak. It doesn’t define a nuclear explosion, which could allow participants to claim that they’re just doing low yield hydrodynamic tests. It gives inspected parties the right to deny inspectors access to “sensitive” areas, the right to deny the taking of radiographic measurements, and the right to deny the taking of environmental samples. It allows the development of peaceful nuclear technologies and even considers the possibility of peaceful underground nuclear explosions.

    If the goal of this treaty is to stall nuclear testing, then it’s poorly constructed for the task. Countries contemplating the kind of nuclear testing envisioned by the treaty are doing so for political reasons, and will not be deterred by discovery by the international community. Nuclear powers interested in testing programs to advance or maintain their arsenals have the technical capacity to do so below the threshold of detection of the CTBTO.

    The treaty is well intentioned, but I’m afraid its ratification will at best be ineffective, and at worst be counterproductive.

    • kme (History)

      Actually, I think this kind of salami-slicing is ultimately irrelevant. As long as it’s in everyone’s interest for the treaty to hold, no-one is going to try to squeeze testing through legal loopholes, imagined or real. This is because it’s quite clear to everyone what isn’t in the spirit of the treaty, and equally clear that attempts by anyone to lawyer their way around it will simply result in the treaty’s collapse.

      This is true even if they think they can sneak something past the CTBTO, because they don’t know what other National Technical Means might be in play.

    • Nate Taylor (History)

      Serious question: How much overlap is there between hydrodynamic testing for fusion power and hydrodynamic testing for nuclear weapons? Is there any at all, or are they fundamentally different in some way. I figure that there must be SOME overlap because the National Ignition Facility is used for both weapons related and power related testing.

    • Dave (History)

      NIF stockpile experiments can look a whole lot like astrophysics and other fusion shots. Of course the most important difference is the source of the test material. In any case, that’s not what I’m talking about when I describe hydrodynamic experiments.

      When I mention hydros, I’m talking about wrapping special nuclear material or surrogate material with high explosives, setting the device off, and using a range of diagnostics to watch the thing implode. Surrogate materials are used at DAHRT (http://www.lanl.gov/science-innovation/science-facilities/DARHT/) or CFF (https://wci.llnl.gov/facilities/site-300/contained-firing-facility), but special nuclear material can be used at U1a (https://wci.llnl.gov/facilities/u1a). These facilities supply much of the experimental data that feeds American science based stewardship, but there are plenty of people who would classify hydros with nuclear material as nuclear tests, even though none of the explosions would be detected by the CTBTO.

      Given that the CTBT doesn’t define a nuclear test, I can easily imagine two implied definitions: either it means ALL nuclear testing or it means all testing above the threshold of detection given current technical means. If the first definition is true, then ratifying the treaty may put the US in violation merely because we’re more open than other nuclear powers are about how we certify that our stockpile is safe, secure and effective (https://nnsa.energy.gov/ourmission/managingthestockpile/ssmp). If the second definition is true, then there’s a lot that nations can do to keep the signal down and avoid detection. In either case, the definition won’t stop a future proliferator like North Korea from testing because it’s in their best interests to ensure that everyone sees that they have a shiny new deterrent.

      If the CTBT is intended to comprehensively ban ALL nuclear tests, then it needs to define the lower threshold of a test and provide for inspection and monitoring efforts to enforce the ban at that limit. Otherwise, it’s simply codifying the status quo (which is probably what most countries under the US nuclear umbrella were thinking when they signed on in the first place).

  2. Michael Krepon (History)
  3. Tony (History)

    A lot of claims but absolutely no sources given.

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    Russia to deploy anti-satellite weapon on MiG-31BM

    Alexander Zudin, London – IHS Jane’s Missiles & Rockets


    Asked if this included satellites, he replied “”Satellites, for sure, and other means of aerial attack which might be found there.”


  5. Dan Gilchrist (History)

    I’ll be very surprised if the US isn’t in a major war by 2020 (Iran or China or both, probably). Bannon shows every sign of actually believing that fourth turning nonsense – which means elements of the administration are not merely failing to avoid war, they may actually welcome it.

    The best I can say is that I don’t think even this mob are crazy enough to want nuclear war. That might mean they could be more open to reform in this area in the next little while… but frankly I think they’re going to prefer to rattle their big sabre to remind everyone to keep nukes off the table when they start shooting. If they’re looking for a kickoff in the next couple of years, as I suspect they are, they’ll guess that there won’t be enough time for any kind of nuclear weapons arms race by then anyway.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Bannon has now publicly declared war on the “administrative state,” while Trump has declared war on the media.
      Seems likely to me, as well, that additional wars will follow unless Republicans turn on this duo first.
      So far, mostly profiles in meekness.

  6. jeannick (History)

    Treaties are not an end in themselves ,
    they are the expression of a desire to have treaties
    the manifestation of a desire to negotiate
    the ease or difficulty of the process indicate the level of trust

    There is no such situation now , there is no trust at all
    on top ,Russia is scared stiff while the US is in some kind of crusade

    I subscribe to the Tolstoian view of history
    things happen and the leaders have no control or understanding of the forces pushing them

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