Michael KreponFor Treaty Trashers, Nothing is Better than Something

Lyric of the week:

“Watch out, you might get what you’re after
Boom babies strange but not a stranger
I’m an ordinary guy
Burning down the house”

— David Byrne, “Burning Down the House” in the Stop Making Sense album (1984)

There are times when nothing is better than something. For example, we would all like to live without pain, illness, and loss. In most cases, however, something is better than nothing — certainly when it comes to putting food on the table. Or budgeting for other necessities like clothing, shelter and education. Something is better than nothing when it comes to protecting our environment or providing for community policing or national defense. And something certainly is better than nothing when it comes to diplomacy to reduce nuclear dangers and reaffirm ties with friends and allies.

All common sense, right? But not according to  Senator Tom Cotton and others, who argue that treaties need to be ditched, even when they do not adversely affect U.S. military firepower and even when they are deemed important by friends and allies. The latter is especially important when it comes to reducing nuclear dangers. Friends are less likely to want nuclear weapons — and adversaries are less likely to use them — when alliances are strong and when Washington takes reassuring steps to demonstrate solidarity.

Treaties are an important part of the nuclear safety net woven with great care over the past 45 years by successive administrations, a safety net that has helped prevent mushroom clouds. What, exactly, is injurious about the few treaties left that provide tangible ways to foster cooperation among friends and allies spooked by the Trump administration’s policies and by Russian bearishness?

The nothing-is-better-than-something crowd has trained its fire at the Open Skies Treaty, which governs cooperative over-flights from Vancouver to Vladivostok; the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which bans ground-based, nuclear-tipped missiles of certain ranges based within and on the periphery of Europe; and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits longer-range strategic offensive arms. In each case, ditching treaties would further shred alliance ties and the nuclear safety net.

The ostensible reasoning for walking away, which applies to the Open Skies and INF treaties, but not New START, is that Vladimir Putin has violated some of their provisions. “The bottom line,” as Deputy Defense Undersecretary for Policy David Trachtenberg has testified, is that “arms control with Russia is troubled because the Russian Federation apparently believes it need only abide by the agreements that suit it.” Selective Russian compliance is most definitely problematic. The challenge before legislators and the Trump administration is how to respond sensibly and effectively to Russian misbehavior.

The most egregious examples of Russian misbehavior relate to Russia’s disregard for the sovereignty of its neighbors. The most glaring examples of this are the Kremlin’s annexing of Crimea and the hybrid warfare it is waging in eastern Ukraine. The United States can no more accept the Crimean annexation than the swallowing-up of the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Russian efforts to compromise Ukrainian sovereignty along their border deserve serious and sustained push-back, increasing the costs of Russian occupation.

But what about treaties? Is nullification a good strategy to express opposition to Russian misbehavior? Let’s begin with the Open Skies Treaty, first proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955 and rejected by the Politburo as a clever, nefarious ploy to reveal their closed society’s military secrets. President George H.W. Bush resurfaced Ike’s proposal in 1989 to test Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s campaign of glasnost, or openness. Gorbachev agreed, knowing that his country couldn’t hide from satellite observation. This Treaty was finalized in 1992 and entered into force a decade later. So far, over 1,000 cooperative aerial over-flights have been carried out under the Open Skies Treaty.

This Treaty isn’t really about gathering intelligence for Washington and Moscow, which have other, better means of doing so. Indeed, the resolution limits on the sensors carried by Open Skies aircraft were deliberately set to commercially available, fuzzier standards than those obtainable by “national technical means.” The point of the Treaty has always been about symbolism rather than technical data collection: The United States could offer ride-sharing with friends and allies, thereby helping those without advanced monitoring capabilities while giving them cooperative means of situational awareness and reassurance of Washington’s continued support for their national security.

These fundamental reasons for negotiating the Open Skies Treaty have become far more important with Vladimir Putin’s revanchist and Donald Trump’s “America First” tendencies. Senator Cotton and others complain that Russia has placed constraints on overflying Kaliningrad, an outpost on the Baltic Sea sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, while imposing logistical constraints on U.S. aircrews. The Kremlin is also sensitive for obvious reasons about over-flights along the Ukrainian border. Let’s be clear: nothing of military significance that happens in Kaliningrad or in western Russia escapes U.S. notice. Let’s also be clear that Senator Cotton’s proposed remedy would end ride-sharing with Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, along with other countries in Eastern Europe, including new members of NATO.

Senator Cotton and other opponents of the Open Skies Treaty have another complaint, which is entirely of their own making. Russia has replaced its old Open Skies aircraft and equipped them with more modern sensors, as is permitted by the state parties. The Air Force and Open Skies critics on Capitol Hill have dragged their feet about replacing our own rickety Open Skies aircraft and sensors. They now complain about being placed at a disadvantage in terms of openness. Every other treaty-party has OK’d over-flights by the new Russian aircraft-and-sensor suite — instruments that still abide by strictures on resolution negotiated a quarter-century ago — except the Trump administration. It’s a sad day when Moscow can turn the tables on Washington by being more open to inspections, something every U.S. president since Harry Truman has previously championed.

Speaking of openness, New START provides U.S. on-site inspectors access to sensitive facilities where Russian strategic forces are located. While satellites can and do monitor these sites, well-trained inspectors can sense information that technical instruments cannot. These inspections are also highly symbolic: they convey a hard-won degree of cooperative monitoring to reduce the world’s most deadly weapons. Without inspections, President Ronald Reagan would not have been able to champion the INF Treaty with the “evil empire.” Inspections have been part and parcel of steep reductions in strategic force structure ever since.

Provisions of New START, including on-site inspections, expire in 2021. The terms of the Treaty permit its extension as well as further reductions. Are limits on strategic offensive forces backed up by on-site inspections better than no limits and no inspections? The common sense answer to this question is clearly “yes.” Those who would dispense with limits and inspections would slash our frayed nuclear safety net. They’re not making sense.

Which brings us to the 1987 INF Treaty, which has greatly reassured America’s NATO allies and jump-started deep cuts in ocean-spanning nuclear forces. The Obama and Trump administrations have charged Russia with violating this treaty by deploying prohibited ground-based missiles after flight-testing them. Putin has long chafed against not being able to have missiles with ranges comparable to those possessed by China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. He has taken another page from the old Soviet playbook by deploying them, presumably to increase leverage on NATO.

When the Kremlin did this in the mid- to late 1970s, it prompted the Carter and then the Reagan administrations to adopt a “dual track” strategy of pursuing negotiations while building new “Euro missiles” as a counter. These U.S. ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles greatly stoked the Kremlin’s fears of a surprise attack. When deployments began in Europe, they prompted a Soviet walkout at nuclear negotiations and greatly roiled NATO, but they eventually led to the INF Treaty which eliminated them.

Now this history could be repeating itself. Washington has counters to Russia’s Euro-missiles that don’t violate the INF Treaty, and Congress has begun to fund additional counters that do. This time around, it may well be harder to find takers for them within NATO, but pressures will still grow for Moscow to accommodate U.S. concerns. The way out of this mess is through negotiations, not ditching the INF Treaty, which would compound allied jitters over Washington’s unilateralism.

When it comes to the nuclear safety net and alliances, something is definitely better than nothing — until something better can be built. This ought to be a hallmark principle of conservatism and bipartisanship. Those who argue otherwise have stopped making sense.

Note to readers: An earlier version of this essay first appeared in Defense One on October 2nd.


  1. Joel (History)

    I can agree with your assessment on START.

    When it comes to Open Skies, I think it has been made redundant by the proliferation of commercial satellite imagery. Open Skies originally seems to have been focused on things like order of battle and activity, not highly technical information requiring precise measurement. For the former objective, commercial satellite imagery is a much better option. It’s much harder to squirrel away all of your stuff every single satellite pass, especially considering the growing constellation of commercial imagery satellites, as opposed to during a periodic flight. I would argue that the only legitimate reason for Open Skies flights at this point in time is to gather technical intelligence. If we think it’s beneficial for our opponents to gather technical intelligence on us, than we should start a new treaty with that as the focus, not allow Open Skies to morph into something it was never designed to be.

    When it comes the INF treaty, I doubt its sustainability. Arms treaties have to be mutually beneficial to all parties involved, and the INF treaty just isn’t. The western world has a vast advantage when it comes to air power, which gives them a reliable deep strike option. Designing and fielding competitive combat aircraft in order to level the playing field is prohibitively expensive for essentially everyone else. Intermediate range missiles allow countries a counter to western air power for a reasonable price, and putting them on land makes them somewhat survivable. It’s unreasonable to push a treaty that prohibits these sorts of weapons when the western world doesn’t have to give up anything. If the treaty’s intent is to prevent quick, stealthy nuclear strikes, you could potentially focus on different aspects of the weapons to address those, like prohibiting cruise missiles, while allowing much easier to detect ballistic missiles. You could also focus on establishing norms when it comes to their deployment, like announcements, much like announcements for ballistic missile tests.