Michael KreponElections, Fear of the Bomb, and the Great Unraveling

Thankfully, a dispiriting election season in the United States is almost over. France and Germany await their ordeals. Democracies have been battered by the Great Recession, triggered by the greed of financial institutions and abetted by weak governmental regulations. Fears of displacement and loss have been fueled by the influx of foreign workers and the advent of multiculturalism. The public is fed up with electoral politics that rewards those with deep pockets while tossing bromides to those struggling to make ends meet. “Trickle-down economics” hasn’t trickled, while refugees from war-torn regions stream westward and northward in search of shelter.

These unsettling conditions have produced Donald Trump as the Republican Party’s standard-bearer. Trump reminds me of Frank Muir’s well-read children’s book, What-a-Mess, painfully re-scripted into a shambling presidential campaign. The U.S. political process is reeling in Trump’s toxic wake, and won’t be cleaned up anytime soon.

Fear of the Bomb – or more precisely, fear of Trump’s finger close to “the nuclear button” – has figured prominently in this election. The issue of presidential temperament resonates with voters, but does not translate readily into major changes in U.S. nuclear posture or reductions in force structure. Not during a seemingly endless war against barbarism that leaves the American public on edge, not when U.S. relations with Russia are in steep decline, and when relations with China are iffy.

The clearest example of transference turning nuclear fears into a big win to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons is the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which followed on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The closest prior approximation of an electoral transference of nuclear fears into constructive action might have been the negotiation of the Nonproliferation Treaty in the Lyndon Johnson Administration, after a presidential campaign in which Barry Goldwater generated nuclear anxiety. (Goldwater opposed the LTBT and proposed, like Trump, to help allies acquire nuclear weapons.) The linkage between Goldwater and the NPT is tenuous, however, because of other intervening variables.

Nuclear anxiety, whether during or in between elections, is more likely to promote nuclear build-ups or feelings of helplessness rather than arms-control measures. Positive change happens when awareness of nuclear dangers is linked to a sense of hope that a clear objective can be achieved – an objective that tangibly reduces nuclear dangers. Even then, domestic politics must be aligned with international relations to seize opportunities.

The LTBT breakthrough became possible because the Cuban Missile Crisis focused public attention on nuclear dangers and prompted a chastened partnership between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. The most powerful mental image of nuclear danger that resides in our collective consciousness is the mushroom cloud. Kennedy and Khrushchev seized the opportunity to stop the testing of mushroom clouds. Many people worked very hard for many years to tee up this opportunity. There are lessons here for the incoming U.S. administration – but more on this later.

Hillary Clinton does not have a track record of championing bold steps to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons. Her room to maneuver is further constrained by Vladimir Putin’s saber-rattling. Putin – with oil revenues greatly depressed and drawing on a Gross Domestic Product roughly the size of Australia’s – has embarked on the recapitalization of the Russian triad, topped off by the incredibly old-school move of producing heavy liquid-fueled, silo-based, MIRVed missiles.

The George W. Bush Administration started this downward spiral by withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and by leading the charge for second and third rounds of NATO expansion. Putin has responded in more than full measure, by disregarding Georgian and Ukrainian sovereignty and by withdrawing from or undermining agreements negotiated when the Soviet Union was in its death throes or when the Russian Federation was prostrate.

Under these circumstances, the incoming Clinton administration will face great pressures to continue with the U.S. triad’s recapitalization, endorsed by no less of a skeptic than Barack Obama. Countervailing budget pressures provide an opportunity to trim some excess and save tens of billions of dollars from these plans, but Hillary Clinton’s caution and Putin’s lack of it – as well as wariness over a more confident China – make it likely that the new administration will remained clothed in nuclear orthodoxy.

It’s hard to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in one’s defense posture when others are increasing theirs. Adopting a “No First Use” pledge or abstaining entirely from nuclear-armed cruise missiles on the grounds that others can be persuaded to follow suit is a stretch. A brand-new Clinton Administration, like the closing act of the Obama Administration, is unlikely to be persuaded by arguments about the transformative powers of U.S. arms-control initiatives.

The Obama Administration’s New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty cut force structure nominally and, in the course of securing the Senate’s consent to ratification, was accompanied by the high costs and opportunity costs of extensive recapitalization. The best aspects of New START have always been its intrusive monitoring procedures and the framework it provides for more meaningful reductions – without having to go back to the Senate for its consent to ratification. A second tranche of reductions under New START is, however, very much in question.

A good many of my colleagues in the arms-control community are not inclined to wait and see whether there will be a second tranche under New START; they would rather de-link the United States from Russian force levels and proceed directly with unilateral reductions. This is not my first preference. Assuming Mr. Putin can afford to maintain New START levels, unilateral U.S. reductions might encourage him to stand pat. A second tranche of bilateral reductions could also be foreclosed because of continued deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations, especially if Putin continues to seek to revise the post-Cold War order along Russia’s periphery. In this event, a strong backlash in the United States can be expected against any reductions taken below Russian force levels.

Those on the Right who would like to trash New START are in favor of delinking and sizing U.S. strategic forces “as needed.” If Democrats join Republicans in seeking to disregard treaty force levels, much will be left to chance. The new Clinton Administration is likely to take another run at deeper bilateral reductions under New START. If Mr. Putin is unreceptive, centrifugal forces will pick up speed, and New START could unravel, as is now the case with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. I also expect the new administration to engage in purposeful multilateral diplomacy to address North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. If success is not forthcoming on this front, the Clinton team will face very hard choices.

These are grim eventualities. A Great Unraveling is already underway. The extraordinary accomplishments to reduce nuclear dangers of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are coming undone. One way to regroup is for the new administration to methodically pursue the Senate’s consent to ratify the CTBT. This step would do more than any other to stabilize the wobbly nuclear order. China, India, Pakistan, and Israel could follow the U.S. lead because they can live without renewed testing. They are respecting moratoria and are waiting for someone else to go first – either to renew testing or for the United States to ratify the CTBT. Russia ratified the Treaty during halcyon years gone by, but its continued fealty to the Treaty cannot be taken for granted.

A chain reaction of CTBT ratifications will not transform relations between states possessing nuclear weapons – ties that will remain difficult. But the salience of nuclear weapons in these relations will be reduced, the NPT will be reinforced, and needed salve will be applied to relations between nuclear- and non-nuclear weapon states.

No single step initiated by the United States could do more to push back against growing nuclear dangers on multiple fronts. And no other step is so directly linked to humankind’s fear of the mushroom cloud. The CTBT, like the LTBT before it, conveys a powerful message of urgency to reduce nuclear dangers during troubled times. The new administration’s choice to proceed with CTBT ratification can generate significant activism and public support in the United States.

Yes, I know: Once burned, twice shy. Let sleeping dogs lie. Republican senators won’t possibly support the CTBT in sufficient number. Thirty-three of them signed a letter opposing even the common-sense step of a UN Security Council resolution reaffirming the existing testing moratoria. So why try? Because we’re headed downhill.

My suggestion is highly contingent. It is contingent, first of all, on the Democrats’ regaining control of the Senate. It is contingent on lengthy hearings that persuasively lay out the case for ratification and that put to bed concerns raised seventeen years ago, when the Senate rejected Bill Clinton’s ill-advised decision to proceed to a vote on the CTBT. It is contingent on enough Republican senators’ keeping an open mind. (Notably, Republican senators in closely contested re-election races chose not to sign the aforementioned letter.) And it is contingent on reaching an agreement across the aisle on continued funding for strategic modernization programs in return for the CTBT’s ratification. This compact will be very hard for some Democrats and perhaps sixteen Republican senators to swallow.

Is this scenario conceivable? I wouldn’t bet on it. But do you have any better ideas on how to stop the hemorrhaging?


  1. Bradley Laing (History)

    “Almost unnoticed outside defense circles, the Pentagon has put artificial intelligence at the center of its strategy to maintain the United States’ position as the world’s dominant military power. It is spending billions of dollars to develop what it calls autonomous and semiautonomous weapons and to build an arsenal stocked with the kind of weaponry that until now has existed only in Hollywood movies and science fiction, raising alarm among scientists and activists concerned by the implications of a robot arms race.”


  2. kme (History)

    “It’s hard to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in one’s defense posture when others are increasing theirs.” – and here, of course, is the inescapable logic of the arms race.

  3. Bradley Laing (History)

    —–Very detailed Russian Federation R 36 / SS 18 ICBM article.


  4. tgbeatty (History)


    I was about eight years old when the USSR dissolved, so for pretty much all my life the nuclear face-off of the Cold War was something of history and not the way the world worked. I’d be interested to know if you think that the last 25 years of low tension are actually just a local minima of danger, in between a “natural,” tense state of affairs when large nations have nuclear weapons – or if the Cold War was the anomaly?

    Put another way, we all seem to have dodged a nuclear bullet in 1992, but do you think we’re going to keep pulling the trigger until the cylinder rotates around again?

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I was seven years old during the Cuban missile crisis. My mother tried to explain it, but I did not understand. As I remember it, the Cold War was unusually tense, with a constant background risk of nuclear war. The first 25 years of the post-Cold War, unusually low risk of nuclear war between great powers. After 1998, some risk of nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

      I see the risk of great power war, including nuclear war, as increasing. This is particularly true for U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China. In the longer term, Russia-China and India-China will likely have risk of nuclear war. Also, adverse climate change in future decades will increase tensions that could lead to war, including nuclear war.

      I don’t believe it is inevitable that humans must keep pulling the trigger in a game of nuclear roulette. Unfortunately, the human world has not yet firmly decided to stop pulling the trigger, or to take significant steps to reduce or eliminate the risk.