Michael KreponThe Lure and Illusion of Consensus

Qute of the week:

“There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of monarchy; it first excludes a man from the means of information, yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgment is required. The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly; wherefore the different parts, by unnaturally opposing and destroying each other, prove the whole character to be absurd and useless.”   — Thomas Paine, Common Sense

A working “consensus” over strategic modernization and nuclear arms control is coming apart, to the extent it temporarily existed at the end of the Obama administration. Many who favor strategic modernization programs have taken aim at treaties and, with Vladimir Putin’s help, are about to withdraw from the INF Treaty. Those who favor treaties are taking aim at the wish list of deterrence “strengtheners.” Divisions will become even sharper after Donald Trump’s announced pursuit of a space wall to protect American cities from any missiles coming from any source.

The deck has always been stacked in favor of nuclear arms rather than nuclear arms reductions. Support for weapon systems requires simple majorities; the passage of treaties requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate. When treaties do pass this gauntlet, their future is still not assured. Richard Nixon’s ABM Treaty lasted for three decades until George W. Bush pulled the plug. Ronald Reagan’s INF Treaty also remained in force for three decades before Donald Trump announced his intent to withdraw.

This suggests that the life cycle of bilateral treaties without an expiration date is not unlike the life cycle of strategic weapon systems, with the former being harder to replace than the latter. Less formal agreements designed to reduce nuclear danger can have much shorter half-lives. Trump walked away from Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran before the five-year mark.

Is it reasonable to expect consensus on these matters when Washington-based Republicans and Democrats are so much at odds? Not really. Treaty ratification debates provide opportunities for deal making, but these arrangements are temporary because they usually leave both camps with regrets that intensify over time. Treaty skeptics will always prefer freedom of action. Treaty supporters feel burned because the “price” of ratification is so high — even for a treaty like New START whose reductions are so modest.

The price to secure the ratification of the 1972 ABM Treaty and its companion Interim Agreement was extremely high: new MIRVed missiles, new cruise missiles, subs and bombers. The Kremlin pursued similar “safeguards.” It took almost two decades to place limits and reductions on the insurance policies bought to secure passage of the SALT I accords. 

The price for ratifying New START, according to treaty advocates, was also very high — to the tune of well over one trillion dollars to recapitalize and sustain  missiles, subs and bombers. Boosters of these programs argue that this was the deal the Obama administration consented to for ratification. Team Obama did, indeed, acknowledge that U.S. strategic forces were aging and in need of eventual replacement. Without this acknowledgement, it was unclear whether New START would garner the necessary super-majority in the Senate.

The particulars and costs of modernization were not agreed upon, however. Nor could they be, as they would occur over several administrations to come. Does the Air Force need new nuclear-armed cruise missiles as well as a new penetrating bomber? If so, how many are needed and are affordable? (The Air Force wants 100 or more new B-21 strategic bombers. It wanted 132 B-2s during the Reagan administration and got 21 as the price tag rose, averaging two billion dollars per aircraft when sunk costs were added.) Does the Air Force need a completely new missile to replace Minuteman, or might old missiles be upgraded, the way B-52s have been? If brand new missiles are the best way to go, do they need to replace old ones on a one-for-one basis?

Late in its second term the Obama administration contemplated scaling back recapitalization programs it initiated in 2010. But the administration did not do so, assuming that its successors would be obliged to make hard choices in defense spending, so it left these questions up in the air.

What, then, did the language of the Senate’s Resolution of Ratification actually call for? Here are the key passages:

(9) United states commitments ensuring the safety, reliability, and performance of its nuclear forces.-(A) The United States is committed to ensuring the safety, reliability, and performance of its nuclear forces. It is the sense of the Senate that-

(i) the United States is committed to proceeding with a robust stockpile stewardship program, and to maintaining and modernizing the nuclear weapons production capabilities and capacities, that will ensure the safety, reliability, and performance of the United States nuclear arsenal at the New START Treaty levels and meet requirements for hedging against possible international developments or technical problems, in conformance with United States policies and to underpin deterrence;

(ii) to that end, the United States is committed to maintaining United States nuclear weapons laboratories and preserving the core nuclear weapons competencies therein; and

(iii) the United States is committed to providing the resources needed to achieve these objectives, at a minimum at the levels set forth in the President’s 10-year plan provided to the Congress pursuant to section 1251 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (Public Law 111-84).

And what did the Obama administration actually promise in the context of New START ratification? Kingston Reif has dug into these weeds:

In 2010, President Obama submitted to lawmakers a 10-year plan to maintain and modernize US nuclear warheads, strategic delivery systems, and their supporting infrastructure.

Contained in what was originally known as the “Section 1251 Report,” the… plan outlined $85 billion in projected spending on the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) weapons activities and $100 billion for strategic delivery vehicle modernization at the Pentagon between fiscal years 2011 and 2020.

This down payment sufficed for enough Senate Republicans to secure ratification — but not for the deal’s primary broker, Senator Jon Kyl, who voted ‘nay.’ It’s hard to maintain a consensus when it’s immediately undermined as being insufficient by one of the lead negotiators. It’s also hard to maintain consensus support for strategic modernization programs when deterrence “strengtheners” take aim at treaties and when enthusiasts for new space strike capabilities have been given a new lease on life.

Consensus is necessarily fleeting when the estimated costs of procurement, operations and maintenance for the current force and the strategic modernization wish list is so high. It’s conceivable that a deal for extending New START in return for some of the items on the wish list can be hammered out, but sooner or later hard choices of how best to spend defense dollars seem unavoidable. But New START hangs by a thin thread and might fall to the Treaty Slayer, John Bolton.

My preference is to take up each of these items on its merits. Contrary to Bolton and his cohort, extending New START and cooperative, intrusive monitoring arrangements makes eminent good sense. Replacing aging strategic forces makes sense. Reducing excess nuclear force structure that presidents dare not use in warfare and applying funds for conventional power projection capabilities makes sense. Doing this while challenging Putin to make wise choices of his own and to avoid another iteration of strategic competition makes sense. If Trump and Bolton make bad decisions, it will be up to the Legislative Branch to make wiser choices. All bets are off if Putin as well as trump make bad choices.


  1. Janet M. Simons (History)

    Is there a cite for Kingston Reif’s comment?

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