Michael KreponThe Demise of Nuclear Arms Control

Prophecy of the week:

“Go, my people, enter your chambers,
And lock your doors behind you.
Hide but a little moment,
Until the indignation passes.”
— Isaiah

Note to readers: I am at work writing a book on the rise, demise and revival of nuclear arms control, thanks to a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Here’s another taste.

In February 1941, media impresario Henry Luce published an essay in Life magazine declaring the 20th Century to be the American Century.  If we mark the beginning of  the American Century in 1917 when Woodrow Wilson sent doughboys to intervene in a stalemated war, then we can mark its unequivocal end exactly 100 years later, with the swearing in of Donald Trump. Trump’s clarion call “America First” was the very formula that Luce sought to confine to the ash heap of American history. Trump’s brand of American nationalism is the antithesis of the formula that produced a century of American global leadership.

America’s decline from the hubris of the “unipolar moment” following victory in the Cold War preceded Trump and notably coincides with the demise of nuclear arms control. The “golden era” of arms control began during the second Reagan administration. It ended during the second term of the Clinton Presidency. That’s when Kosovo was liberated by force of arms from Serbia against Moscow’s objections, NATO expansion began, and the Chemical Weapons Convention (mostly negotiated during George H.W. Bush’s term) was opposed by the Senate Republican Leader and the Republican Chairmen of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committee — a very bad omen. Then a majority of Republican Senators rejected ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The demise of America’s global standing and nuclear arms control accelerated during George W. Bush’s Presidency when Bush responded to preventable and horrific attacks on the U.S. homeland by declaring an open-ended war on terrorism, which was followed by twin crusades to rout evildoers and extend democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq. NATO was expanded much farther eastward, to include the Baltic States. NATO grew weaker the more it expanded, even as anti-democratic tendencies among members in Central Europe returned. Vladimir Putin pushed back harder the further NATO expanded.

Actuarial tables turned. Key figures in the internationalist wing of the Republican Party left the stage. As in the 1920s and 1930s, the GOP again lost its moorings, slashing instruments of diplomatic engagement, just as it turned against the League of Nations after the first world war. The League was Woodrow Wilson’s handiwork; after the Cold War ended, Republicans opposed agreements negotiated by previous Republican Presidents.

It’s understandable why the demise of arms control coincided with the end of the Cold War since the Soviet threat was a central rationale for treaty making. During the Cold War, vulnerability to the Bomb was expressed by nuclear arms control. Vulnerability to post Cold War terrorism was expressed by the impulse for freedom of action and redirected into killing treaties.

The ABM Treaty was an early casualty of the 9/11 attacks, after which Putin announced Russia’s withdrawal from the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty mandating deep cuts and the prohibition of land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads. As NATO expanded, Putin disregarded agreements reflecting the post-Cold War division of Europe. Bush and his Vulcans wished to include Georgia and Ukraine within NATO; Putin nullified that by carving out estuaries of Russian control in both states, while annexing Crimea outright.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the United States had no allies to offend. Now it does. Boorishness works for reality television, but doesn’t play well abroad. Authoritarian leaders, including within NATO, have rejoiced at another member of the club, while democratic leaders were left to wonder what had become of the American electorate. Reality television became political reality.

The demise of the American Century and nuclear arms control reached new lows after Trump’s black-swan election. Trump turned gold into straw — a reverse Rumpelstiltskin. He fast-tracked separation between the United States and its allies and friends, Israel and Saudi Arabia excepted. America’s stature and strength shrunk accordingly.

The loudest voices in the Republican Party are now against nuclear arms control. Discarding and wearing out National Security Advisers, Trump turned to a loud voice, John Bolton, instead of a bridge builder. Putin violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, providing the opening Bolton needed to withdraw rather than to leverage U.S. theater missile defense programs to return Putin into compliance. Trump and Bolton walked away from the Iran nuclear deal, with predictable results. Bolton has begun to set the stage for weakening the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and has forecast U.S. disinterest in extending the last remaining treaty reducing strategic offensive forces. Putin won’t invite further affront by being the demandeur of its extension.

During the Obama administration, Republicans in Congress decided that unyielding opposition offered greater political benefit than helping Barack Obama to govern. Donald Trump transposed this formula to the White House. He seeks bipartisanship the way that Lucy held the football for Charlie Brown.

Trump’s instincts and personality traits have been more than sufficient to yield Moscow big dividends in terms of weakened U.S. alliances and America’s diminished international standing. Never in the history of international affairs has such a modest investment by a hostile power – hacking a political campaign – yielded such extraordinary returns.

The damage done to nuclear arms control — the least appreciated major accomplishment of the Cold War — has been profound. This extraordinary inheritance has been squandered. A new construction project is needed. We can draw useful lessons from the past, but new challenges lie ahead, requiring a new design.

To be continued…


  1. Scott Monje (History)

    “The ABM Treaty was an early casualty of the 9/11 attacks, . . .”

    Michael, I would have attributed Bush’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty–as well as his preference for parallel unilateral reductions of offensive missiles rather than the formal SORT treaty that Putin ultimately insisted on–to a belief that post-Soviet Russia was so broken that it would no longer be able to compete, and so the US could eliminate mutual obligations and free itself to do what it wanted without fear of Russian responses. Am I on the right track there? I’m not sure how 9/11 fits in, other than in creating a general backdrop of threat that reduced or eliminated domestic opposition to any tough-sounding proposal. Was there a fear of terrorist missiles?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Thanks for commenting.
      I don’t see direct cause and effect (9/11 leading to scrapping the ABM Treaty); this was instead an opportunity to jettison limits long sought by treaty opponents. Given heightened vulnerability to attack, there was hardly a peep against withdrawal.

  2. Bill Wieninger (History)

    Good piece — you might add a reference to Putin’s 2007 Speech in Munich

Pin It on Pinterest