Michael KreponSecond-Term Blues for Arms Control


The “Arms-Control Enterprise” is taking a beating as the “Nuclear Enterprise” is recapitalized. These trend lines have become starker during the Obama administration’s second term, mirroring the declining fortunes for arms control during President Bill Clinton’s last four years in the White House. While Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did surprisingly well in reducing nuclear force structure or stockpiles during their second terms, recent Democratic Presidents have fared poorly by comparison.

Success at arms control cannot be manufactured, and leadership can only go so far as international conditions will permit. Clinton’s first term was a tour de force, reflecting the persuasive powers of the world’s sole superpower. He secured U.S. ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (albeit with a poison pill entry-into-force clause), and maneuvered Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to join the Non-proliferation Treaty as non-nuclear-weapon states, thereby enabling entry into force of the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

President Obama’s gains during his first term were comparatively modest, reflecting a more onerous international security environment. He was able to achieve only limited reductions in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, with an essential extension of intrusive monitoring provisions. He initiated a useful Nuclear Security Summit process, and helped secure a successful NPT Review Conference.

Both Presidents moved on to other initiatives during their second terms, marked by unsuccessful NPT Review Conferences and the absence of new strategic arms-reduction treaties. Neither could convince the Senate to ratify more than one arms-control treaty: After securing the CWC – largely negotiated on President George H.W. Bush’s watch — Clinton suffered a stinging defeat over the CTBT’s ratification; after New START, Obama turned to issues where success did not require the support of two-thirds of the Senate.

Obama’s call for a world without nuclear weapons quickly stalled out. Vladimir Putin rejected numbers below New START and advanced a revanchist agenda. Beijing also became more assertive around its periphery in different ways. Strategic modernization programs picked up steam in Russia, the United States, China, Pakistan, and India. The CTBT remained in limbo. Obama was badly pummeled for his signal success in placing strict limits on Iran’s ability to stockpile fissile material used to make nuclear weapons. To achieve this accord, he had to sidestep Congressional endorsement – a troubling indicator of the demise of bipartisanship on nuclear-related issues that will also constrain his successor’s options in the White House.

Bad news accumulated on several fronts during Obama’s presidency. Moscow backed away from tenuous conventional arms-reduction arrangements codified when the Soviet Union was a basket case. The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty is in weak shape. Another strategic arms-reduction treaty will have to await a marked improvement in U.S.-Russian ties. More likely, Washington and Moscow will both decide on deeper cuts out of budgetary necessity.

A significant triangular nuclear-arms competition is heating up among China, Pakistan, and India, with no sign of dampening. North Korea is increasing its stockpile of nuclear weapons. U.S. diplomacy to reduce nuclear dangers has been hard to detect on the Korean Peninsula, and has had no impact upon Pakistan. The specter of nuclear terrorism is growing again as nihilist Muslims waving the banner of the Islamic State use semi-automatic weapons and suicide vests to create panic in Europe and the United States.

The administration’s plan to “lead from behind” the European Union to achieve a Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations has unraveled. Early on, it might have been possible for Washington to persuade Moscow and Beijing to sign up, but the EU lacked the persuasive powers and diplomatic finesse to reach closure. China, Russia, and the United States are now fine-tuning their anti-satellite capabilities without offsetting or compensatory rules of the road.

This long and still incomplete list of concerns will preoccupy Mr. Obama’s successor. There will not be much room for the pursuit of new arms control initiatives. The duration and monitoring arrangements of New START provide some leeway, as does the continued global moratorium on nuclear testing. Efforts to shore up the testing moratorium can provide more insurance against tough times ahead.


  1. Mark Gubrud (History)

    On the bright side, the anti-satellite fine-tuning (actually still fairly early development, but with apparent gathering momentum) is taking place without the benefit of a multilateral agreement stating that “damage or destruction” of satellites can be “justified by the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence.” Which means there is still room for somebody to advocate actual space arms control.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Space arms control that rejects the right of self defense = a Kellogg-Briand Pact for space. And let’s make it a treaty, for good measure.

  2. AEL (History)

    Didn’t he manage to get a lot of chemical weapon stuff removed from Syria? That has got to count for something.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Yes, an important omission.
      CW use of less lethal substances continues.

  3. Bradley Laing (History)

    Strictly based on back-of-the-envelope research, which of the Presidential candidates would want to swing a space Code of Conduct, and which ones actually could do it? Donald Trump making a speech in front of his Republican supporters for a Space Code of Conduct sounds like something for a parody sketch on a Tv show, to me at least.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      definitely SNL material.

  4. WSR (History)

    Per Wikipedia / Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File_talk:US_and_USSR_nuclear_stockpiles.svg) over the history of the US nuclear stockpile, the number of US nuclear weapons has a large net-increase (+6300) during terms of Democrat presidents and a net decrease (-1500) during terms of Republican presidents.

    But removing Kennedy (+9500) and Bush 41 (-9500) from the tally swings the results completely the opposite way — Dem presidents -3200, Rep presidents nearly +8000. Not so coincidentally, the Kennedy increase – Bush decrease corresponds to the advent and destruction of the Berlin Wall. Kennedy had the misfortune of being president during the heat of the Cold War, while Bush 41 had the benefit of being president as it ended. Sometimes world events influence Presidential actions. (crazy talk, I know)

    The two Bushes combined to eliminate about 15,000 US nuclear weapons. The 5000 retired by Bush 43 were not available for Obama to retire. The cuts get more difficult as the numbers decrease. Obama might have had more success shrinking the stockpile, had not others done it before he got the chance.

    Also note the number of US nuclear weapons has decreased over the term of EVERY president since Johnson (3 D, 5 R). Twenty year build-up followed by 50 years of decline.

    (caveat — the data is by year, and I am unable to tell whether it is pegged to start or end of year. So the data may be mis-registered by a year with subsequent effects on who gets the credit/blame. There may also be uncertainty in whether the tabulated counts are accurate.)

  5. Bradley Laing (History)


    Maybe we could celebrate December 2, 1942 each year by building a house on the University of Chicago campus where the doors open only to let you in, but not out?