Michael KreponThe Most Dangerous Aspect of Trump’s Nuclear Posture

Quote of the week:
“Labor to keep alive in your bread that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

— From “110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” (Rule #110), compiled by French Jesuits in 1595. George Washington copied these by hand as a pedagogical exercise at age 16.

Concerns about the Trump administration’s “pre-decisional’ draft Nuclear Posture Review have rightly focused on the expanded scope for permissible first use of nuclear weapons, new options for downsizing existing yields, and nuclear-armed cruise missile developments. The first is a mug’s game. Threatening first use when you have more to lose than your adversary is senseless; expanding the scope of threatening first use is even more senseless. The second – significantly downsizing the yield of some Trident warheads — presumes that time sensitivity is crucial when it comes to using nuclear weapons. The opposite has proven to be true time and time again, beginning with the Cuban missile crisis. As for cruise missiles, they are a crucial supplement to U.S. power projection capabilities — when they are usable in conflict, not in Armageddon scenarios.

There has been little attention focused on the arms control diplomacy passages of the Trump administration’s draft Nuclear Posture Review. This is understandable because there is little expectation of movement on this front. Nevertheless, words matter here, especially when they seek to establish conditions that are extremely dangerous or that foreclose any future compacts. Trump’s draft document would do precisely this by calling for any future agreements limiting and reducing nuclear dangers to be “enforceable.” The key passage of the pre-decisional draft reads, “The United States is committed to arms control efforts that advance U.S., allied, and partner security; are verifiable and enforceable.”

Here’s the long form:

“The United States is committed to arms control efforts that advance U.S., allied, and partner security; are verifiable and enforceable; and include partners that comply responsibly with their obligations. Such arms control efforts can contribute to the U.S. capability to sustain strategic stability. Further progress is difficult to envision, however, in an environment that is characterized by continuing significant non-compliance with existing arms control obligations and commitments, and by potential adversaries who seek to change borders and overturn existing norms.”

Verifiable agreements? Yes, absolutely. That’s how we’ve succeeded in reducing U.S. and Russian strategic forces by 85 percent from Cold War-era highs. Enforceable nuclear arms control? That’s novel — and dangerous. Enforceable arms control requires a prostrate adversary, or world government, or a United Nations with strong enough powers of enforcement because permanent members of its Security Council have given up their veto powers and contributed to large standing armies carrying out joint operations flying the UN flag.

Not going to happen? Well, there’s another option: enforcement by war and occupation. If someone cheats on an agreement and diplomacy and sanctions fail to rectify the situation, what other enforcement options does the aggrieved party have?

The last time the enforcement option was seriously employed was after World War I on defeated Germany. As part of the punitive Versailles Treaty’s provisions, Germany was forced to pay reparations, the Rhineland was demilitarized and occupied by foreign inspectors, the size of the German Army and the tonnage of its capital ships were strictly limited, submarine construction was prohibited, as was the creation of a German Air Force. These enforcement provisions didn’t go very well. The reparations dried up, the occupiers went home, and German armament factories resumed business in preparation for World War II.

No treaty to reduce nuclear dangers and forces contains the word “enforcement.” All of the progress that has been made to date has been accomplished without enforcement mechanisms. Verification and treaty monitoring became the substitutes for enforcement in the nuclear age. Sophisticated monitoring capabilities allowed parties to determine if violations were occurring in time to take corrective action.

Treaties also included provisions to deal with compliance issues, including on-site inspections and consultative mechanisms. If disputes could not be resolved, the aggrieved state could take complaints to the UN Security Council, knowing full well the difficulties of securing unanimous consent among veto-wielding members. Or instead of going the UN route, the aggrieved state could take compensatory actions to regain any perceived loss of security, which might or might not include walking away from the treaty.

These provisions were messy, no doubt, and certainly less than perfect. But this is how the nuclear safety net was woven over the past fifty years, a safety net that limited nuclear proliferation, produced deep cuts in nuclear forces, established norms against nuclear testing and the battlefield use of nuclear weapons. This is why most of us cannot remember seeing a mushroom cloud or experiencing the horror of trying to figure out how to contact loved ones in the fifteen minutes left after a missile launch warning, before the bomb arrives.

As messy as diplomacy is to reduce nuclear dangers, it’s not as messy as enforcement by means of war and occupation. So what is the Trump administration thinking when it makes enforcement a requirement of new agreements? The United States will not accept foreign enforcement of limits on U.S. nuclear capabilities. Russia and China will not accept U.S. enforcement on limits of their nuclear capabilities. War and occupation aren’t options here.

What, then, constitutes enforcement in the nuclear age? One definition of enforcement is unilateral action. Enforcement can mean pre-emptive strikes against facilities capable of producing dangerous weapons and material. More ambitiously and recklessly, enforcement can mean preventive war. Enforcement can be arms control by other means when diplomacy fails, or isn’t seriously tried. Or enforcement can be a substitute for diplomacy. When practiced against weak states at the front end of their nuclear ambitions, enforcement can mean something more manageable than full-scale war and occupation along the German model after World War I.

Is this what the Trump administration has in mind when it’s draft nuclear posture review speaks of enforcement? What would enforcement look like when applied to North Korea, which hasn’t agreed to nuclear constraints, or to Iran, which has? If the Trump administration is going to make enforcement central to its conception of arms control, it has much explaining to do.

Note to readers: A shorter form of this essay appeared in Defense One on January 23rd.


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    This is reading a lot into the undefined term “enforcement.” Assuming it does not mean military force, could it simply mean that “Verification and treaty monitoring” is adequate to detect militarily significant cheating “in time to take corrective action”? Could it simply mean having both the means and the will to take such corrective action when cheating is observed? If so, is there an alternative shorthand way to say this without conjuring up images of war?

    To be sure, President Trump is not shy to conjure up images of fire and fury and total destruction. Since military enforcement of arms control is impractical, this phrasing is maybe an excuse not to pursue arms control. The draft document clearly states, “Further progress [in arms control] is difficult to envision, however, in an environment that is characterized by [Russian misbehavior].”

  2. Subversive Peacemaker (History)

    And of course, all five permanent members of the UN Security Council are nuclear powers!!! Hmmm…