Michael KreponReasons for the Great Unraveling of the Arms Control Enterprise

New Feature: Quote of the week

“The demagogue, though he professes (and fails) to readjust matters in the interests of the majority of the electors, yet stereotypes mediocrity, organizes intolerance, disparages exhibitions of uncommon qualities, and glorifies conspicuous exhibitions of common ones. He manages a small job well: he muddles rhetorically though a large one.”

— George Bernard Shaw, “The Revolutionist’s Handbook”

Much blame has been justifiably heaped on Vladimir Putin for dismantling or disregarding decades of hard work to reduce and eliminate nuclear arms and for pushing back against the post-Cold War order in Europe. As ACW Founding Father Jeffrey Lewis has noted, Putin is copying the old Soviet playbook. Here comes a new monster ICBM, silo-based and liquid-fueled, no less, carrying perhaps ten MIRVs, harkening back to the SS-9 and -18. Also in store is a new hit-to-kill anti-satellite weapon, this time delivered by aircraft instead of the co-orbital interceptor of the ’70s. A new Euro-missile, harking back to the SS-20, makes its appearance, notwithstanding the INF Treaty. (The last Soviet treaty violation this blatant was the construction of the Krasnoyarsk radar, in contravention of the ABM Treaty.) Dangerous military practices have returned on the ground, in the air, and at sea, as if agreed codes of conduct did not exist. Most disturbing of all, Moscow has disregarded agreements signed in Minsk and Budapest to honor Ukraine’s sovereignty, making the annexation of Crimea even more consequential than the invasion of Afghanistan. This list could go on, but you get the picture.

Largely missing from these critiques are the decisions taken in Washington that contributed directly to the great unraveling of treaties and norms now underway. This tale of woe begins with the decision by the Clinton administration in 1996 to expand NATO eastward to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, instead of employing the Partnership for Peace as a parallel mechanism to stabilize former Warsaw Pact states, or at least slow-walking new NATO membership.

As Bill Perry recounts in his must-read book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (Stanford, 2015), the leading advocate of NATO expansion was Richard Holbrooke. At the critical NSC meeting convened to decide this matter, everyone assumed that NATO would expand. Secretary of Defense Perry argued to wait for two or three more years, reasoning, “The strategic imperative for a measured approach on expanding NATO was absolutely crucial in relations with Russia.” Vice President Al Gore argued the case for expanding sooner rather than later. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and National Security Adviser Tony Lake remained silent, presumably at Dick Holbrooke’s urging. The die was cast. The more NATO expanded, the more the post-Cold War European order would become an affront to the Kremlin.

The second blow to the post-Cold War nuclear order during the Clinton Administration landed when Senate Republicans withheld consent to the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1999. Clinton could have avoided this defeat, but chose instead to roll the dice with a roll-call vote. By losing this fight, the Clinton Administration’s leverage for persuading India and Pakistan to sign the CTBT dissipated completely, while Beijing settled into the comfortable position of waiting for Godot. The one step that could have led to a cascade of signatures and ratifications was put on the shelf. If it comes to pass that the United States, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan join North Korea in testing, make it a point to look up the names of the Senators who voted against the CTBT. You’ll find some surprises.

The advent of the Vulcans and the George W. Bush Administration accelerated the Great Unraveling of the Arms Control Enterprise. They did the Clinton Administration one better, further expanding NATO to include Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and the Baltic states. Liberal, pro-democracy internationalists joined hardened Realpolitik-ers in leading the charge, including Henry Kissinger, who reasoned that NATO expansion would “encourage Russian leaders to interrupt the fateful rhythm of Russian history . . . and discourage Russia’s historical policy of creating a security belt… around its borders.”

Kissinger held a far different view in his influential Cold War treatise, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy: “An alliance is effective only to the extent that it reflects a common purpose and that it represents an accretion of strength to its members.” NATO now defends three Baltic states with the combined standing armies of 26,000 lightly equipped troops, plus reserves. Leaders in Hungary and Poland have begun to backtrack from democratic norms, demonstrating nationalist and Euro-sceptic tendencies under the protective NATO umbrella. The seven states added in the second tranche of NATO expansion spend, on average, 1.4 percent of their gross domestic product on national defense. The Bush Administration’s plans to expand NATO even further to include Georgia and Ukraine were stymied first by Germany and other longtime allies, and then by Russian military actions.

The Vulcans’ nod to arms control was a risible treaty on strategic forces whose limits would enter into force only on the 24th hour of the last day, after which they would lapse. They ditched efforts by the Clinton Administration to demarcate permitted theater missile defenses from limited national missile defenses, opting instead to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. Moscow responded by deep-sixing the START II accord banning MIRVed land-based missiles. The new Russian “heavy” MIRVed missile about to be rolled out is the result. Next up in Republican precincts on Capitol Hill: a MIRVed ICBM nuclear war-fighting gap.

There’s more: The Vulcans pushed for “robust” instead of limited national missile defenses, which would foreclose further reductions by Russia and prompt China to embrace MIRVs. This long-cherished objective finally became national policy in the waning days of the Obama Administration. They pushed for new nuclear warheads with tailored effects, which was more than the traffic could bear on Capitol Hill. They surreptitiously provided notification to a Republican Senator and to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna that the United States no longer felt bound to respect the Treaty’s object and purpose – actions revealed only after President Bush left town.

The blame game interests me less than how to pick up these pieces. My point here is that the righteous indignation against Vladimir Putin might be leavened a bit by recognition that there’s plenty of blame to be spread around. Putin has much to answer for, but deconstructionists in the Republican Party have succeeded in creating the conditions they long warned against. Now that the demolitionists are free to roam the White House as well as the Kremlin, we are in for a particularly rough ride.

Building a new enterprise to reduce nuclear dangers and weapons will require a change of heart about nuclear diplomacy among Republicans, perhaps chastened by Team Trump. At its essence, conservatism is, after all, not tearing down what has previously been built until there is something better to replace it. A free-for-all isn’t better than treaty restraints and norms to reduce nuclear dangers. If Republicans allow deconstructionists free rein, the United States is left with only two options: watching and complaining while nuclear dangers grow, or sending more U.S. troops into harm’s way.


  1. Ben D (History)

    So perhaps Trump is wise to prefer friendship with Russia, rather than an enemy….

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Friendship can’t be divorced from disrespecting lines on a map and seeking to manipulate election results.
      Cooperation on reducing nuclear dangers is another matter. This is especially necessary with countries that aren’t friends.

    • Ben D (History)

      Agreed, noninterference in other countries politics and elections is a policy all countries should adhere to…alas?

      Reducing nuclear dangers is also a policy all countries should agree to,…but alas, I’m afraid the future is not looking bright in this regard.

  2. Nate Taylor (History)

    “They pushed for new nuclear warheads with tailored effects, which was more than the traffic could bear on Capitol Hill. They surreptitiously provided notification to a Republican Senator and to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna that the United States no longer felt bound to respect the Treaty’s object and purpose – actions revealed only after President Bush left town.”

    I am a bit confused by this sentence, did you mean only after President Obama left town? Or am I missing something?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      The CTBT shenanigans of the Bush administration were publicly revealed only in the last year of the Obama administration when it pushed for a UNSC Resolution to reaffirm the CTBT and its moving parts, especially its international monitoring system.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I am confused by the preceding sentences: “The Vulcans pushed for “robust” instead of limited national missile defenses,… This long-cherished objective finally became national policy in the waning days of the Obama Administration.” I was unaware the Obama administration pushed for this. Did you mean the W. Bush administration? Was it a secret national policy?

    • Ben D (History)

      Jonah…yes, the Bush admin.. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vulcans

  3. Michael Krepon (History)

    Also see http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-missile-defense-unlimited-20161221-snap-20161221-story.html
    Kingston Reif has written about this in Arms Control Today.

  4. Dan Gilchrist (History)

    I could not possibly love this post more. A great summary events that is very timely.

    Just about everyone had a hand in this growing mess. The important thing is recognising that the mess exists so we can get work cleaning it up.

    Chances of that happening… close to zero. But, well, it’s exactly zero if we don’t try.