Michael KreponArms Control and the Aging Process

Lyric of the week:

And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgement of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song …
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

— The Who, “Don’t Get Fooled Again”

Note to ACW readers of all ages: I wish for you joyous holidays and a happy, healthy 2019.

One of the very few extravagances my parents budgeted as I was growing up was an annual trip to Fenway Park where I was fortunate to watch my hero, Ted Williams, hit two home runs. When it was my turn to take our son to games — who never lived in Massachusetts but is still a dyed-in-the-wool Red Sox fan — the players were somehow younger than me. How did that happen? More decades passed and eventually I qualified for Social Security. Ailments arrived. Most of the doctors caring for me are no older or younger than our children. For most of us, the body doesn’t age gracefully as we place ourselves in younger healing hands.

Nuclear arms control hasn’t aged gracefully either and it will be up to younger hands to find prescriptions. The extraordinary successes of arms control came from patience and persistence, not by swinging for the fences. Persistent effort was rewarded in treaties codifying deep cuts as well as a treaty banning nuclear weapon testing. These victories were predicated on equality in U.S. and Soviet/Russian strategic forces and mutual acceptance of vulnerability to their battlefield use. Those who felt that equality and vulnerability were always the wrong criteria for success are succeeding in dismantling prior accomplishments. Major decisions now confront us and a significant revamping seems inevitable.

John Bolton enjoys meeting with Russian leaders to clarify presidential decisions to withdraw from arms control treaties. As the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control in the George W. Bush administration, he traveled to Moscow in August 2001 to lay down the law about Bush’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Now as Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, he relished being back in Moscow, this time to hammer nails in the coffin of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Next up on the chopping block is the 2010 “New” Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the last thick strand of the nuclear safety net constraining the longest-range nuclear forces. Moscow has so far complied with New START’s provisions, but that hasn’t stopped Bolton and his boss from pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. When asked by the press during his October trip to Moscow whether treaty trashing meant the resumption of a nuclear arms race, Bolton replied, “I think that the rhetoric is exaggerated.” This is like saying that the nuclear safety net woven with great care over the last three decades is still intact because we haven’t fallen through it yet.

The odds of injuring ourselves badly in the fall grow with every treaty that is trashed by Moscow and Washington. These treaties are the strongest strands of the nuclear safety net; cutting one weakens others. Bolton’s “success” in killing the ABM Treaty prompted Vladimir Putin’s decision to ditch the 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty banning land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads. The ban on MIRVed ICBMs was a major, long-sought success of arms controllers — first promoted seriously by Al Gore and effectuated by George H.W. Bush — because they are the principle instruments of nuclear war-fighting scenarios. These weapon systems fueled counterforce targeting and arms racing in the 1970s and 1980s. Now they’re back in play for Russia, and in the worst possible way — atop readily targeted liquid-fueled, silo-based missiles. To paraphrase The Who’s refrain from “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” say hello to your new anxiety, same as the old anxiety.

Bolton has stated on many occasions, in and out of government, that nuclear arms control treaties rooted in the Cold War are a big mistake because they restrain America’s freedom of action. He strongly believes, along with the tear down artists on Capitol Hill, that agreements codifying equality in U.S. and Russian striking power that do not include constraints on China are not in America’s national security interests. In this view, safety derives from superiority, not equality. For these reasons, and because of Russia’s treaty violation of deploying perhaps fifty missiles of prohibited range — the INF Treaty had to go.

Never mind that this opens up more near-term deployment options for Russia than for the United States. Never mind that the United States could employ maneuvers to counter and reverse-leverage Russian INF Treaty violations without walking away. Never mind that finding land-based deployment options for intermediate-range missiles will be harder than putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. This isn’t about logic, reason, and alliance management. This is about a core belief — that arms control is a snare and a delusion.

Bolton has one thing right: “Arms control” no longer fits the temper of the times. The organizing principles behind nuclear arms control in the early 1960s — rough equality and national vulnerability — no longer resonate. Nor are they compelling after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and after 9/11. A new central organizing principle to replace “arms control” hasn’t been developed, let alone agreed upon. There isn’t much time to do so. Perhaps, if Bolton fails to trash New START,  we will have five more years to develop a game plan by extending its provisions, with or without additional reductions — but what then?

There are immediate battles to be waged to stop unwise nuclear initiatives, to seek unilateral and reciprocal reductions in force structure, and to redirect expenditures for nuclear excess to better purposes. Amidst these battles, there may not be enough energy or interest to re-conceptualize what we are doing and what we call it. This would be a pity because knowing where you want to go helps to get there. Reconceptualization can lend impetus to every useful initiative; otherwise, everything can seem ad hoc. Reconceptualization can also help forge a working domestic consensus on decisions that requires bipartisanship to have lasting positive effect.

Is there a shorthand concept for reducing nuclear dangers and weapons? Help me out here. The goal of “abolition” doesn’t work as a substitute for “arms control.” Yes, it’s the right idealistic goal, but the current state of major power relations stands in the way. Until relations improve considerably, projecting dates by which numbers of nuclear weapons “should” and “must” be reduced until we reach nirvana just isn’t going to cut it. So, how best to proceed? Whenever a new administration arrives to pick up what’s left of the mess that Trump and Bolton have made, it will need a persuasive central organizing principle to succeed.


  1. M B (History)

    It looks like all we have left id protest in the streets and replacement of the present administration with people that understand what is truly at stake. Bolton and Trump are not acting in America’s or the World’s best interest. So the choice for humanity is left to sound minds and heads.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Schelling suggested three reasons for arms control: 1) reduce the odds of nuclear war, 2) reduce the size of disaster if nuclear war occurs, and 3) reduce costs of nuclear (and conventional) arms. Reasons (1) and (2) are of overwhelming importance. Reduced size of disaster (2) can only be accomplished through treaty-based reductions in numbers.

    Reduced odds of nuclear war (1) can be accomplished through treaties that improve crisis stability (e.g., no MIRVs; no ABMs, no intermediate range missiles). There are also unilateral actions that can reduce the odds of nuclear war. For example, the U.S. could pre-commit through policy or legislation to no first use; the U.S. could take some or all nuclear missiles out of immediate launch ready status.