Michael KreponThe New Congress and the Lost Art of Political Compromise

Quotes of the week:

“Atomic energy seems to present choices that defy wide popular understanding and control. So far, the control of such decisions is a kind of indigestible element in the operation of democratic politics.” — Robert A. Dahl, “Atomic Energy and the Democratic Process,” 1953.

“The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”   — Robert M. Hutchins

The lost art of domestic political compromise is evident on many issues. The one that concerns us here relates to treaties and other diplomatic accords to reduce nuclear dangers. Core transactions in the past have authorized expensive safeguards and strategic modernization programs in return for the Senate’s approval for agreements reached. In these transactions, arms controllers have gotten the short end of the stick when constraints have been porous or modest while downpayments intensified the arms competition. Deterrence strategists felt similarly aggrieved. They disliked constraints on U.S. freedom of action, didn’t trust the Kremlin to hold up its end of bargains reached, and believed that U.S. administrations were out-negotiated. Nobody was happy with bargaining outcomes, but nuclear dangers were reduced and eventually nuclear forces were, too.

Now, with the demise of political compromise on Capitol Hill, existing treaties reducing nuclear arms are threatened with extinction. Donald Trump has announced his intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing a Russian violation and the need to counter Chinese missiles. Next up on the chopping block may well be the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, finalized by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev in 2010.

With the revival of strategic competition with Russia and increased tensions with China, the old formula of negotiating new diplomatic accords in return for ample appropriations for strategic arms seems unlikely to work. The more boosters of nuclear weapon programs take aim at arms reduction treaties, the more those supportive of treaties take aim at strategic modernization programs. If treaties that restrain the nuclear arms competition are killed, then tighter budgets could be used as a surrogate, cutting excessive expenditures and questionable initiatives. This new formula is a work in progress.

The founding fathers of arms control in the early 1960s tried to avoid this impasse. They anticipated the need for compromise to integrate the practice of arms control into defense acquisition and military strategies. They assumed that without such compromise, arms control would fail, military strategy would be defective, and nuclear dangers would grow. As Tom Schelling and Mort Halperin wrote in Strategy and Arms Control,

“What we have tried to emphasize more than anything else is that arms control, if properly conceived, is not necessarily hostile to, or incompatible with, or an alternative to, a military policy properly conceived… Before one considers this an excessively narrow view construction of arms control, he should consider whether it cannot just as well be viewed as a very broad statement of what the aims of military strategy should be.”

The difficulty of integrating arms control with defense programs was on display after the 1972 Interim Agreement and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty negotiated during the Nixon administration. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird gravely warned that new ballistic missiles, submarines, bombers and cruise missiles would be needed to compete with the Soviet Union that could be expected to exploit loopholes that U.S. negotiators were unable to close. Supporters of nuclear arms control on Capitol Hill swallowed their misgivings and opened purse strings.

It took U.S. negotiators the better part of two decades to control and reduce the strategic modernization program undertaken as prudent hedges along with the 1972 accords. Arms controllers also felt burned when, after agreeing to write large checks to the nuclear labs, Senate Republicans refusal to provide consent to ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999. Most recently, opponents of New START extracted expensive pledges of strategic modernization programs as the price of consenting to its modest reductions.

One argument for undertaking a new generation of missiles, submarines and bombers was that they were needed because the United States unwisely sleep-walked through a building holiday in the years following the end of the Cold War. But let’s be serious: This building holiday occurred because there was no need for even more building. Strategic forces do age, however, and by the end of the Obama administration the time had come to move forward with their replacements.

Whether strategic nuclear delivery vehicles could be reduced below New START levels and how much to spend on strategic force modernization programs were open questions. Team Obama left these decisions to its successor, presuming that cuts would occur for budgetary reasons. Instead, Barack Obama found himself passing the baton to Donald Trump who evinced no serious interest in deeper cuts. Meanwhile, the costs to build and maintain strategic modernization programs, now estimated to be well over one trillion dollars, continue to rise.

The rules for domestic bargaining have changed since the Nixon administration jousted with Democrats in Congress over the SALT agreements. Unilateralism cuts both ways. With the demise of treaties and the disinterest by boosters of nuclear deterrence in negotiating new ones, Democrats on Capitol Hill can be expected to take a harder look at the costs of strategic modernization programs, especially those that seem excessive and unwise.

The America First wing within the Republican Party has also lost interest in bargaining, whether domestic or foreign. They oppose treaties constraining U.S. nuclear capabilities, preferring coercive means of leverage while being dismissive of diplomacy. The old fashioned formula for success by Republican administrations — to scare the Kremlin into deeper cuts by proceeding with missile defenses or to zero out categories of missiles by preparing to deploy them — was predicated on a willingness for deal making that is no longer apparent.

Ranking Minority member Bob Menendez of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has already issued a shot across the bow before the elections, reminding his Republican colleagues that Democratic support for strategic modernization programs would be linked to Republican support for treaties. His message now warrants repetition at length:

“When the Senate deliberated New START in 2010, some of my colleague on the other side of the aisle, including our esteemed Chairman, made it clear that they were willing to vote for the treaty but only as part of a deal that modernized our nuclear forces and infrastructure.

“Neither an unconstrained nuclear arms race nor blind faith in arms control agreements serve U.S national security interests. American security is best served with a strong, credible deterrent that operates within a legally binding, stable, and constrained arms control environment.

“I hope the Trump Administration fully appreciates this vital linkage. Diminishing, for example, the value of arms control, and placing all faith in one-dimensional conceptions of increasing nuclear strength to bring the Russians and the Chinese to heel, will result in a far more dangerous strategic environment.

“I also want to remind the administration that bipartisan support for nuclear modernization is tied to maintaining an arms control process that controls and seeks to reduce Russian nuclear forces, which inevitably means promoting military- and fiscally-responsible policies on ourselves. We are not interested in writing blank checks for a nuclear arms race with Russia. And we don’t want step off our current path of stability to wander again down an uncertain road filled with potentially dire consequences.”

The domestic backlash to treaty trashing is likely to be directed against attempts to revive space-based missile defense interceptors and the pursuit of new low-yield warhead designs that would add to those already in the panoply of U.S. deterrence capabilities. These programs are likely to be bridges too far for any Democratic majority on Capitol Hill or for a new Democrat in the White House. The backlash from treaty trashing could also extend to nuclear force structure. Wise defense budget tradeoffs seemingly dictate nuclear force reductions, but they could be overridden by unwise decisions by the Kremlin.

Much is up in the air. The art of political compromise in the past has led to limits on terrestrial missile defenses, prohibitions on space-based interceptors and a signed but un-ratified treaty ending nuclear testing. These results have left neither camp happy, but they have facilitated steep reductions in nuclear forces and nuclear dangers. No major or regional power has tested nuclear warhead designs in two decades, while strategic modernization programs have progressed, but within the framework of progressively lower force levels.

Another compromise — domestic, as well as between Washington and Moscow — is built into New START’s provisions for further reductions and a five-year extension. This deal is waiting to be struck — unless Donald Trump and John Bolton announce another preemptive U.S. treaty withdrawal. While there are no Russian violations to blame for a preemptive U.S. withdrawal from New START, Trump set this precedent by walking away from the Iranian nuclear deal that Tehran was observing.

The old formula of negotiating treaties and spending large sums for U.S. strategic modernization programs is foundering in a period of unilateralism and hyper-partisanship. New battle lines are being drawn. Unilateralism doesn’t just apply to treaty withdrawal; it can also apply to cuts in budgets and the force levels that budgets support.

The old formula bothered everyone but was surprisingly successful. There were no mushroom clouds on battlefields during the Cold War. Deterrence alone didn’t achieve this result because deterrence was about threatening behavior. Deterrence needed reassurance to succeed. And succeed it did: A treaty-based system of strategic cooperation reduced nuclear dangers, allowed for deep cuts in nuclear forces and retarded proliferation.

We ought to be able to learn from our successes. Strategic modernization programs alone won’t make us safer. As in the past, deterrence requires the reassurance of nuclear arms control, preferably explicit or tacit when necessary, to reduce nuclear dangers. If the executive branch fails to act wisely — if it doesn’t replace treaties that have made us safer with something better and more reassuring — then members of Congress are obliged to fill in this leadership void.

Note to readers: A shorter version of this essay appeared in Defense One.