Michael KreponTear-Down Mode

Republican insurgents in the Congress are now in full tear-down mode, aiming their wrecking balls at what’s left of seven decades of bipartisan achievement to reduce nuclear dangers and nuclear arsenals. The disruptors are now ascendant in Washington, with the Disruptor-in-Chief setting the tone from the Oval Office. He busies himself dissing allies, tweeting out red lines, and leaving wreckage in his wake on a daily basis, while setting up my beloved country for reckonings to come.

What, pray tell, is the purpose of this disruption? How does it make our lives better or safer? Would someone leading the charge in the disruption business, like Senator Tom Cotton or Congressman Trent Franks, kindly explain the greater good that comes from undermining the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or building “robust” missile defenses that will fuel a buildup of Chinese warheads while killing prospects of further reductions with Russia?

How does dismembering what’s left of the global nuclear order help when the geopolitical order is wobbly? Would the disruptors please explain why making the world safe for renewed nuclear-weapon testing is a good idea? Are the United States and the world safer without agreed, verifiable constraints and reductions on nuclear forces? If 1,500 potential designated ground zeros for low-yield nuclear weapon detonations are insufficient, how will increasing this number or fine-tuning weapon designs in the U.S. nuclear arsenal be persuasive, let alone decisive? What’s the game plan behind the tear down? Where does it lead? How does it help? There are no sensible answers to these questions. When the public square is dominated by disruptors who trash nuclear diplomacy, nuclear dangers can only accelerate.

I’ve stopped watching television coverage of this ongoing tragedy, limiting my intake to trusted websites. That’s quite enough to be stunned by Trump’s narcissism and inadequacies. One picture says it all: Trump on the phone, speaking to a world leader, who will also be stunned by the President’s unfiltered ignorance or affronts. Leaning in from a chair across from the President’s cluttered desk is Michael Flynn, the most ill-equipped national security adviser ever. Taking notes is Vice President Mike Pence, looking a bit stunned, even though he is the biggest beneficiary of Trump’s rise, aside from the Trump family’s brand. The Darth Vader of Disruption, Stephen Bannon, appears near the edge of the frame. And there, standing to the side, is Reince Priebus, also taking notes. Such is the President’s brain trust, his phalanx of savvy geopolitical warriors.

This crew does not have the benefit of assuring cover stories, since accounts of the President’s conversations are being leaked as a public service by those who seek safeguards against this dangerous circus act. Hanging up on the Australian Prime Minister. The Mexican president gets threatened with invasion. (Just joking.) What affronts did the German Chancellor encounter? Stay tuned. A belated Happy New Year greeting to the Chinese President.

The most notable exception to this string of offenses is, of course, Vladimir Putin, who has received a free pass, the reasons for which will eventually become all too clear. Putin offers Trump the valuable extension of New START’s on-site inspections for another five years – a gesture he denied to Barack Obama – and Trump doesn’t pocket it. He’s unaware of the gift, a perpetual prisoner to his own instincts and appetites. He needs help to seize opportunities at nuclear threat reduction, and it’s not in the room with him. He’ll need help when he finds himself in a crisis of his own making, too.


  1. Glen Gates (History)

    Election results hangovet?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      It’s not about the hangover; it’s about the dangers ahead.

  2. Ben D (History)

    Seems Trump and Putin may get along fine, and now he seems to be making friends with Xi Jinping, what’s not to like?

  3. Cthippo (History)

    The silver lining in all this is that there is only an appetite for destruction. They make noise about building a new arsenal, but there is no real constituency for an expensive new program. No one is saying “we have to have these new weapons or else Rusdia will attack us next year” like existed in the 50s. All they have is a general feeling that America should be able to intimidate anyone and no real idea what that might look like. Things ARE bad, but I don’t think this is the climate for a nuclear renessance.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      It’s the same old 1950s and 1980s nuclear offset, when the smart offset is non-nuclear.

  4. snarly (History)

    Thanks for reassuring me that the world is SCARIER THAN HELL RIGHT NOW

  5. Timo (History)

    Lay off the booze.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      When I’m just developing a taste for Bourbon?

  6. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Thanks, Michael. I too keep wondering why the Republican program, beyond nuclear issues as well, is almost solely devoted to tearing things down.

  7. Dan Joyner (History)

    Well said, Michael.

  8. Isaac A (History)

    Hummm… I seem to think this idea that if the last 8 years was so wonderful for stopping the Nuclear world from destruction, why do we have so many countries on the verge of war? I think we were only fooling ourselves and nothing (except not doing anything in the hopes it would fix itself) was ever going to get better. What we have now is the fact that we must either allow every other country that flexes to flex or go back to when the US was the big boy in the room and get things back in order! Only time will tell.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      President Obama tried to reduce nuclear dangers and force structure with Russia. Limited gains followed by serious blowback linked to NATO expansion. He tried to start a serious dialogue with Beijing, but Beijing wasn’t ready. He accomplished something important with Iran. Took a pass on South Asia and North Korea.

    • Chris Zylstra (History)

      There are currently fewer international wars and/or violent conflicts than at any other time since reputable counts have been taken. There are currently fewer people dying from the big four diseases than at any other time since reputable counts have been taken – and AIDS deaths on similar trend. Literacy was enjoyed by 15% at the time of the 1st world war, but we’ve reversed that trend beginning post world war 2 and have turned that stat on its head with 85% of the world now literate. These are the top-of-my-head accomplishments made by the liberal order who fought the GOP tooth and nail for all of it, and who now find themselves between GOP crosshairs and have 35% of Americans fighting to be the one who pushes the red button. Does anyone really believe that if the education system, and in particular the people working within it, was/were given the proper respect a democracy requires, that we’d be in this shameful situation? Competition not Co-operation is the Republican mantra, and no more profitable competition exists than that of arms. No-one in the White House actually believes that something could go wrong that would in the least harm the US or US interests. Which, in the end means not that they see the potential for conflict as being less, no, it means, terrifyingly, that they’ve an entirely different definition of what “US interests” means.

  9. Tom Albert (History)

    Should I be concerned that you are limiting your intake to “trusted websites”?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      “Trusted” = reporters that their job well and outlets that don’t peddle falsehoods or fake news, and that label falsehoods when they are peddled.

  10. Michael Krepon (History)

    Mike Flynn now gone — beating the record of Richard Allen (Reagan) for earliest departure by an ill-equipped national security adviser. Huuuuge chance for Trump to help himself here, with help from Mattis.

    • Alex Luck (@AlexLuck9) (History)

      The press conference implies that is unlikely. This administration is just about to start falling apart. My take anyways.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      One detail that bothers me about General Flynn’s dismissal is the question: How could a recent director of the DIA not realize that the Russian Ambassador’s phone would be bugged by US intelligence?

    • J_kies (History)

      Pretty sure that lack of insight is tied to why he was removed as D/DIA. Mr Flynn is ‘self-actualizing’ his beliefs (arising from no clear sources) and historically demanded that the DIA staff find evidence to support his beliefs. He was removed due to the innate problems that mindset created for DIA morale and productivity.

    • J_kies (History)

      McMasters is the answer to your hope Michael; we can start taking bets on his survival in telling Mr Trump and the gang of fools that reality is non-subjective and that war is a serious business.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      j_kies: a thousand times better than his predecessor. but his experince is narrow. where will the expertise come from — on Russia, China, Northeast Asia, South Asia, etc.?

    • J_kies (History)

      The NSA is a coordination role; all the 17 IC members expertise is available to the advisor to coordinate. I have faith in the professionals in those agencies to provide information and judgments to the interagency coordination process that builds the PDB.

      McMasters seeks and uses expertise; I trust his history.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      The new NSA is inheriting a group very heavy on DIA analysts. Will he ask some to leave and bring the diplomatic side on board?
      Let’s watch.

  11. Nick Ritchie (History)

    Michael, your frustration at the absence of strategy is palpable, but we’ve been here before with the rise of the neocons, right? Reducing the time for renewed testing, robust nuclear earth penetrators, low-yield warhead research restrictions lifted, terminating the ABM treaty, a radically slimmed down nuclear arms reduction agreement, scuppering the BTWC verification protocol, and so on. Underpinning it then was an ideology of American power as exceptional, above the fray, the linchpin of order (with ‘ordering’ too readily conflated with violence). Trumpism, to the extent that it is an ‘-ism’, follows many of these tracks that reflect the Jacksonian tradition in US foreign policy. In this context, it reflects a strong US tradition to organise global nuclear relationships and practices on broadly its terms. A Trump administration that does the same would not be an anomaly. The issue here is what Trump thinks US interests are in global nuclear politics. If it is to wreck as much as possible through neglect, deliberate steps to remove negotiated constraints, or symbolic militarism, then he’ll find resistance aplenty. Without a pressing sense of a profound national ‘need’ to centralise nuclear weapons and threat-making in everyday security strategy I’m not so sure the wrecking ball effect will be as calamitous as you fear (I hope I’m right on that). If the strategy is to confront ‘rogues’ (again, a long-standing tradition in US nuclear policy and security strategy!) then he has a real struggle on his hands if he wants to do anything effective with the DPRK outside a 6 party talks 2.0 process, and a real struggle if he wants to delegitimise the JCPOA with Iran. He might give it a good shot, and he might succeed, but there are lots of obstacles and no easy wins here. Finally, if for whatever reason (and we can all speculate) his relationship with Putin remains a very high priority, then a little give and take on nuclear politics that puts that part of the stressed relationship on a more even footing could be helpful and could be a relatively easy win. It can be tempting to overestimate the agency of one person, but we know that there are powerful cultural, bureaucratic and structural impediments to change in nuclear politics – progressive or regressive depending on your politics.