Michael KreponTrump and the Bomb

Note to readers: A somewhat different version of this essay appeared at foreignaffairs.com on November 20th.

Donald Trump becomes President when the global nuclear order is wobbly and arms-control agreements are unraveling. Nuclear dangers are growing along three axes – North Korea, U.S.-Russian relations, and the triangular competition among India, Pakistan and China. The potential for friction between the United States and China is also growing along with Beijing’s ambitions to control resources and sea-lanes around its periphery. China is modernizing its nuclear forces, but at a slow pace, which could accelerate. A fifth axis of nuclear danger could reopen if, as promised, Trump rips up the Iran nuclear agreement.

There were more intense periods of nuclear danger during the Cold War, but the binary nature of the competition made it possible for leaders to seize opportunities to control the arms race. Multi-polarity makes it harder to find footholds to reduce nuclear dangers. At present, conditions are not favorable to do so along any of these axes, which intersect. It’s conceivable that a Trump presidency, like that of Ronald Reagan, could produce welcome surprises. But it is also possible – and more likely – that nuclear dangers will grow during his term in office. Much depends on Trump’s instincts on nuclear issues, which are far from clear, the advisors he chooses, and whether he benefits or stumbles because of their advice.

The nuclear landscape facing the Trump administration is foreboding. Some arms control and reduction treaties have been jettisoned; other constraints are eroding. Areas of consensus are shrinking. Divisions are widening between the United States and Russia, between states with and without nuclear weapons, and between the Global South and the Global North. All of the existing stanchions of nuclear order are weakened. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty negotiated by Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 imposes only modest constraints. Meanwhile, Russia and the United States are investing heavily in new missiles, submarines, and bombers. Vladimir Putin has declined President Obama’s offer of deeper, parallel cuts under New START.

The Nonproliferation Treaty, whose continued success is predicated partly on progress in reducing nuclear arsenals, faces growing criticism among non-nuclear-weapon states. Its five-year Review Conferences have become acrimonious. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty bans nuclear testing for all time in all environments. Twenty years after its negotiation, it has yet to enter into force because eight key holdouts have not ratified it, led by the United States and China. Negotiations on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, which is supposed to stop new production of bomb-making material, have yet to begin, stalled for the last twenty years in the moribund Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Against this backdrop, many non-nuclear-weapon states are now intent on negotiating a treaty banning the possession of nuclear weapons, against the opposition of nuclear-armed states.

We have come a long, long way from the remarkable arms-control accomplishments that occurred within a thirteen-year period bracketing the Soviet Union’s dissolution. This record of unparalleled achievement began with the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty banning all missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, and ended with the 2000 Plutonium Disposition Agreement, in which the United States and the Russian Federation promised to dispose of excess material sufficient to make 17,000 nuclear weapons. In between, Washington and Moscow agreed to parallel unilateral reductions in tactical nuclear weapons, two Strategic Arms Reduction treaties, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and a companion Vienna Document regulating military exercises, the Open Skies Treaty mandating cooperative over-flights from Vancouver east to Vladivostok, the Chemical Weapons Convention banning these inhumane weapons, the CTBT, and the implementation of wide-ranging cooperative threat reduction initiatives between the United States and Russia.

This historic string of accomplishments began during the second term of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a Cold Warrior who had little use for nuclear orthodoxy and who had a willing partner in Mikhail Gorbachev. President George H.W. Bush and his experienced team of Republican internationalists built on Reagan’s breakthrough INF Treaty, engineering significant reductions in excessive Cold War strategic offensive and conventional forces. President Bill Clinton’s administration contributed three signal achievements besides the Plutonium Disposition Agreement: concluding a chemical weapons disarmament treaty begun by his predecessor, finalizing a treaty ending nuclear testing, and operationalizing an initiative begun by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar to cooperate with Russia in improving security at sensitive sites while building down nuclear excess.

The demise of this historic work reflects the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations. One precursor to the Great Unraveling of arms control was the Clinton Administration’s decision to marginally expand NATO. The George W. Bush Administration, flush with triumphalism and ambition, and stunned by the 9/11 attacks, accelerated the Great Unraveling by announcing its intention to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, in which the two superpowers agreed not to build nation-wide defenses against ballistic missile attacks. Moscow countered by announcing its intent to withdraw from the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, negotiated in 1993, which banned land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads, which were deemed unnecessary in light of constraints on missile defenses. Fifteen years after these twin announcements, a new Russian “heavy” missile capable of carrying many warheads is being produced, as the United States is contemplating construction of a third national missile defense site and proceeds with theater missile defenses in Europe and Asia.

The 1990 CFE Treaty has always been in a particularly tenuous state. At first it seemed unnecessary because of the break up of the Soviet Union and declining defense budgets. Then it needed to be adapted to post-Cold War realities, including the newly independent Baltic states. Then, while waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration led the charge for a second round of NATO expansion, including the Baltic States, while championing, unsuccessfully, further expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine. Rather than viewing conventional force constraints in some former Warsaw Pact states and Soviet Republics as reassuring, Moscow viewed the CFE Treaty as codifying a humiliating post-Cold War outcome.

Under Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin pushed back hard. Moscow announced that it was suspending implementation of the CFE in 2007. In 2008, Moscow recognized two “independent” enclaves within Georgia. In 2014, Putin moved to annex Crimea after domestic opposition led to the toppling of a pro-Russian government in Ukraine. In 2015, Moscow stopped participating in the CFE’s consultative meetings. Moscow has also selectively implemented the Vienna Document’s ancillary agreements to limit large-scale military exercises and to provide advance notifications of military exercises. Implementation of the Open Skies Treaty has also been impaired, especially with regard to cooperative over-flights of Ukraine and Georgia, as well as Kaliningrad, the Russian outpost between Poland and Lithuania that is being ostensibly fortified with nuclear-capable, ground-launched missiles.

The unraveling of nuclear accords has proceeded in parallel with the demise of the CFE Treaty. The Kremlin announced its indifference to extending “Nunn-Lugar” cooperative threat reduction programs in 2012. Capitol Hill was in a similar mood as Russia spent oil revenues to recapitalize its nuclear forces and as friction grew over Putin’s revanchist turn. The landmark INF Treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev is also unraveling. The State Department announced in 2015 that Moscow violated the Treaty by flight-testing a ground-launched cruise missile. New reports suggest this missile is now in serial production. The Kremlin chose not to attend the Nuclear Security Summit hosted by President Obama in 2016, and pulled the plug on the Plutonium Disposition Agreement in 2017. Cold War-era agreements designed to prevent dangerous military practices at sea, on the ground, and in the air have also been disregarded.

Whenever perceived nuclear dangers grow, domestic and international centrifugal forces gain strength. In the United States, the Left calls for unilateral cuts, the adoption of a No First Use nuclear posture, the elimination of the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, while the Right goes after what’s left of treaty constraints on U.S. freedom of action and doubles down on nuclear orthodoxy in the form of a trillion-dollar recapitalization of all three legs of the nuclear triad, plus appurtenances. Early reports suggest that the Trump Administration will plus-up these accounts to cover large, anticipated budget shortfalls.

Buying new missiles, submarines, and bombers that may not come off production lines until after he leaves office will not help Trump to deal with the growing nuclear danger the United States faces. His reputation for assertiveness, over-reacting to personal challenges, and compulsive behavior precede him into the Oval Office. Ceaseless campaign ads have reinforced public perception of a man temperamentally unsuited to have ready access to nuclear launch codes. No presidential candidate has generated such nuclear anxiety since Barry Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater opposed the Treaty banning atmospheric nuclear testing and proposed helping allies become more self-sufficient by allowing them to have nuclear weapons.

Continued here.


  1. Cthippo (History)

    It may just be a case of post election depression coupled with my innate misanthropy, but I find my self hoping Trump does start a nuclear war. I feel like humanity has proven itself unable to make good decisions, unable to move past our simian nature, despite developing the means of our own eradication.

    • Marcus (History)

      Actually, I’m a bit more optimistic. Trump could be the catalyst to get Europe to think about its own defense, and America to think think think really hard about what we can do and what we should do (e.g. what is really in our national interest.). I’m ok with the Putin petting if it allows a reduction in nukes. Perhaps that makes me a cold hearted bastard, but I would accept the current Russian gains if we could get the Russian/USA nuclear weapon level down to 100-200 warheads. Perhaps Trump could do that deal.

  2. Bradley (History)

    Off topic: Did the CNN show “War In Space,” last night include anything about stopping a war n space before it starts? Did it show any skepticism about claims made in interviews? Did it seem like a giant sales pitch? Was it something else entirely?