Michael KreponThe Demise of the Republican National Security Establishment

The skirmish between Senator Bob Corker and the Obama Administration over the UN Security Council resolution on the CTBT is yet another reflection of the demise of the internationalist wing of the Republican Party. Donald Trump’s nomination and his musings about Vladimir Putin are (hopefully) sui generis, but his random thoughts about the Bomb, NATO, wars of choice and nation-building are rooted in the George W. Bush administration’s most ill-conceived decisions.

Reconstituting a Republican internationalist, “establishment” view  won’t be easy. Nowhere is the demise of Republican internationalism more evident than in reflexive opposition to diplomatic accords that reduce nuclear dangers, including those negotiated by Republican national-security elders like Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Melvin Laird, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Paul Nitze, George Shultz, George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker.

The good works of these Republican elders include the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Interim Strategic Arms Limitation Accord, the Vladivostok Accord, the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, two strategic arms reduction treaties, and the Open Skies Treaty. These accomplishments no longer account for much on the Republican side of the aisle on Capitol Hill.

Just as there is no functioning Republican political establishment, there is no longer a functioning Republican national-security establishment. Add this to the wreckage of the George W. Bush Administration. Elders who have negotiated meaningful treaties while serving in the executive branch have retired, or passed on. A new generation of elected officials is trying to build careers by championing muscle-flexing and tearing down these accomplishments. Insurgents flourish in the wilderness. They seem not to have learned from the costly mistakes of the Bush Administration, seeing only virtues in tough talk and pitfalls in diplomacy to reduce nuclear dangers.

In this mindset, no measures are better than half-measures. The tough talkers insist on negotiating conditions that will result in diplomatic failure, to be followed by harsh remedies. The embodiment of this “my way or the highway” form of deconstruction is John Bolton, deemed by Donald Trump to be worthy of consideration as his Secretary of State. Younger Boltons serve as Congressional staffers, working for bosses who set up roadblocks to new accords and chip away at existing ones. They enthusiastically apply Nancy Reagan’s dictum of “Just Say No” to diplomacy to reduce nuclear threats.

The equation of useful compromise with defeat leads to train wrecks, whether in the Legislative or Executive Branch. On Capitol Hill, Republican leaders have deflected and reflected the views of insurgents to oppose nuclear threat reduction by diplomatic means.

Reflexive opposition has reached systemic proportions. Not one Republican on Capitol Hill broke ranks to support an agreement to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Instead, Republicans signed up en masse to a gross mischaracterization of this agreement as enabling Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. None of the stage-full of Republican candidates in this slash-and-burn presidential cycle reminded voters of past Republican diplomatic accomplishments to reduce nuclear dangers, or promised to pursue new ones.

To support diplomacy to reduce nuclear dangers is to invite fierce opposition – not from Democrats, but from fellow Republicans. It’s hard to find profiles in courage on Capitol Hill against this toxic wave powered by a pervasive, visceral dislike of the last two Democratic Presidents – one that will assuredly carry over to the next. Add Vladimir Putin’s deconstructionist tendencies to the Republican Party’s implosion and the challenges ahead are as daunting as in the 1960s, when arms control was conceptualized and tested against deep Soviet skepticism and the advent of missile defenses and MIRVs.

“Just Say No” isn’t a policy; it’s a posture. Dismantling treaties isn’t the way to support allies and maintain influence abroad because U.S. partners like treaties, especially the CTBT. The American public doesn’t want renewed nuclear testing, either. Domestic and international opinion strongly favors Senate action to help break the logjam preventing the CTBT’s entry into force.

During these hard times, no single step by the Senate could have more beneficial consequences to reduce nuclear dangers in East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East, because if the United States deposits its instrument of ratification, there is a strong likelihood that China, India, Pakistan, and Israel will follow. Iran and Egypt would then face pressure to follow suit. If the Senate blocks U.S. ratification, none of these states are likely to come on board.

The main arguments against the Senate’s consent to ratification had some validity in 1999, when most Republicans lined up in opposition. The several-hundred monitoring stations required to detect very low yield, covert tests hadn’t been set up, and the ambitious U.S. stockpile stewardship program to ensure reliability absent testing had yet to prove itself.

These concerns have now been alleviated, although some still argue that we won’t know what the future might hold, and that we can’t count on a car engine to run perfectly without turning the engine on after a long hiatus. It’s true that we can’t foretell the future, but we can reasonably assume that it will be safer the harder it is for major and regional powers to resume nuclear testing. And yes, the car engine hasn’t been turned on for a long time, but if you spend several billion dollars every year in maintenance, you can still have high confidence that it will run just fine.

This leaves two lesser arguments against the CTBT: whether there is a common understanding about what is meant by nuclear-explosive testing and whether extremely low yield tests can be detected. As for the latter, if there is any question that the CTBT’s International Monitoring System and U.S. national technical means are not up to this task, they can be supplemented with additional monitoring stations. As for the former concern, common understandings can be clarified alongside the Treaty’s entry into force.

Republican internationalists will seek to alleviate these concerns alongside the CTBT’s ratification. Radical Republican rejectionists will have no interest in alleviating these concerns; they just want to block the Senate’s consent to ratification.


  1. zoneofsubduction (History)

    While this article is rather partisan in tone, where has the Democrat President been in the nuclear forces reduction arena? The US is reliant on an ICBM missile force that was designed in the 1960’s and has been operational since the early 1970’s. Around 450 LGM30’s sit in silos and the entire USAF missile force suffers from institutional rot, a lack of promotional opportunities, a much lower state of readiness, increasing laxity in command and control, along with the general consensus among policy makers and the public that these are devices which are little more than an instrument of national suicide.

    With over seven years in office, Obama has had the opportunity and the power to unilaterally reduce by significant numbers and yes, even eliminate the land based missile component of the nuclear trinity. Yet, for all his campaigning rhetoric, he has failed to act in a decisive and deliberative way. This has been a grand error in judgment on his part.

    The USAF once held the preeminent role as a nuclear force. With the demise of the binary geopolitical view, the USAF has floundered about looking for a coherent mission with which to lobby for increasingly expensive aircraft and decreasing defense funding. The Air Force has had repeated recent scandals involving nuclear weapons, nuclear missile crews, strategic readiness, and no sense of self urgency to repair their portion of the triad.

    The Air Force wants equipment that it can use on a regular basis as a way to justify itself and the careers of the officers who run it. Nuclear missiles gather no positive press and strategic bombers such as the B2 are far too expensive to fly regularly and have increasingly demanding maintenance schedules.

    In overall effect, the Air Force is devolving from a large strategic force and into an analogue of the Air Corps of the mid 1930’s.

    Opponents will howl, but the US Navy’s SLBM fleet has the range, the accuracy, the numbers, the security, the operational readiness, the ability to get close to targets if needed, and the stealth to carry out deterrence.

    If Obama were to decide to eliminate the Minuteman III force completely, it would free up needed funds for aircraft that the Air Force relies on, it would significantly reduce the threat of a nuclear weapon accident in the continental US, it would serve as a political and moral impetus to Nation-States seeking to acquire nuclear weapons to reconsider their nuclear state “wants” for actual “needs”, it would turn the American heartland from a first strike target into a much lower assessed target, and Obama could leave a real legacy of arms reduction for his administration, with the inertia for a successor to do more in that arena.

    For a President who wants to leave a legacy of a better America, this choice should be first on the agenda.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Strongly argued.
      I would agree that the Democratic side of the aisle could usefully get reacquainted with nuclear issues, and that President Obama’s “all of the above” approach to strategic modernization will short change the funding of weapon systems that our armed forces will need. We will pare down from “all of the above,” sooner or later. I would prefer that we pare holistically that than simply taking a whack at this and a whack at that. Let’s set criteria for what we most want with respect to nuclear forces and go from there. Survivability would be at the top of my list.
      The two times before this when we spent large sums for nuclear forces — when we built out the Triad in the 1960s and then recapitalized in the late 70s and 80s — we didn’t use a special kitty to pay for these weapon systems. Henry Kissinger’s wrote a big book early on entitled, The Necessity for Choice. I feel this message applies to hardware choices, as well: do we go overboard buying weapons we dare not use, or spend more money on non-nuclear capabilities?
      President Obama has been hamstrung by promises made to get New START through the ratification process and by Vladimir Putin’s actions. He has one last bite of this apple before leaving office. If he takes a bite, I would agree with you that the ICBM leg deserves the closest look. Secretary Perry often makes the point that, if you are concerned about prompt launch timelines, take a hard look at the ICBM leg.

  2. Bradley Laing (History)


    —-Iranian nuclear scientist who claimed he was refusing to co-operate with weapons work is now released.