Michael KreponImpeachment and Arms Control

Quote of the week:

“In politics, words are the coin of the realm. Used judiciously, they can build political capital, coalesce a public consensus, or enrich a nation. But when frittered away or ineffectively employed, words in political life can bankrupt a candidate, sell out a policy, or even dissolve a government. — James A. Baker, III, The Politics of Diplomacy

Donald Trump has floated above the din he habitually creates. His cunning is so great that he has been able to move through life absent guardrails and wise counsel. One of his secrets of success/ extrication is that he creates conditions where punishment is just too much of a bother.

Until now. Until his recorded and transcribed phone call to the Ukrainian President asking for “a favor” to advance his election prospects while withholding military assistance to help in pushing back against Russian “advisers” and proxies in eastern Ukraine.

Where does this leave us in terms of efforts to reduce nuclear dangers and weapons? This is already the third case of impeachment proceedings in the Nuclear Age. The previous two don’t provide a clear roadmap. In the first (Richard Nixon), arms control was modestly advanced. In the second (Bill Clinton), it was retarded.

With Trump, a third path seems most likely — that  impeachment proceedings will have little bearing on prospects for new agreements. These developments are unlikely to change Trump’s nature. Neither he nor those around him have demonstrated a capacity for positive outcomes in national security negotiations.

Shall we take a walk down memory lane?

In the case of Richard Nixon, arms control agreements were advanced modestly because this beleaguered President wanted to demonstrate that he was still a master on the world stage.

Less than one month after Nixon visited Moscow for a summit meeting in 1974, the House Judiciary Committee voted on three articles of impeachment. As his power waned, Nixon and Henry Kissinger tried to make progress in the strategic arms reduction talks, but the gaps were too great and the Kremlin, then led by Leonid Brezhnev, was not inclined to close them.

Nixon was still able to put the finishing touches on two agreements, however. One was the Threshold Test Ban Treaty limiting the yields of underground nuclear tests to 150 kilotons — about ten times that of the bomb that caused massive death and destruction at Hiroshima. Nixon and Brezhnev also agreed to reduce from two to one the number of missile defense deployment areas permitted under the Ant-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Many who wanted a comprehensive ban opposed the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. Its threshold was high and hard to monitor, which fostered complaints of Soviet violations, and it did not cover “peaceful nuclear explosions,” a massive loophole. Despite these deficiencies, which Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan later attended to, the Threshold Test Ban Treaty was a steppingstone to a comprehensive treaty.

The protocol to the ABM Treaty reducing deployment areas to only one per side merely reaffirmed political and strategic realities. There was no interest in the Congress back then in funding two deployment areas — or indeed, even one. By reaffirming national vulnerability, Nixon and Brezhnev also reaffirmed a key precondition for deep cuts, when political conditions permitted. So, all in all, Nixon’s final efforts proved modestly useful — at least in my view.

Gerald Ford tried to pick up where Nixon left off with Kissinger’s help, but success eluded him. After pardoning Nixon, Ford was not in a strong political position, especially with a serious challenge from Ronald Reagan, who effectively raised alarums about détente and the Soviet strategic buildup.

In contrast, impeachment proceedings contributed to impairing Bill Clinton and his arms control agenda. Clinton was a gifted politician and policy wonk with a serious personal weakness. And just as a baseball manager cannot hide a gifted hitter but poor fielder from batted balls, so was Clinton unable to hide his weakness for “sexual relations” with a star-struck intern.

Clinton’s first term was quite successful. He oversaw the denuclearization of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan — states without the expertise and funds to be responsible stewards of their sudden nuclear inheritance. This paved the way for implementing deep cuts negotiated by his predecessor, George H.W. Bush.

In addition, Clinton secured the indefinite extension of the Nonproliferation Treaty, an accomplishment that appears increasingly valuable as the global nuclear order becomes wobbly. Clinton completed negotiations begun in the Reagan administration on a Chemical Weapons Convention as well as negotiations begun in the Eisenhower administration on a Comprehensive Test Ban. All in all, Clinton tacked on four more years to the Golden Age of nuclear arms control that began with the negotiation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.

Clinton’s second term was disappointing, foreshadowing a period of decline in nuclear arms control that continues to this day. Nearly half the Republican members of the Senate voted against consent to ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, despite adding conditions protective of chemical industry and harmful to inspection provisions, and despite the fact that most of the agreement’s provisions were nailed down in the Bush administration. The Senate vote on the CWC was still lopsided — 74-26 — but it was a harbinger of a stinging rebuke awaiting Clinton.

In the previous Democratic administration, Senate Republicans conceded one treaty to Jimmy Carter, but not two. Carter succeeded in a tough ratification fight over relinquishing control over the Panama Canal, only to fail in securing the Senate’s consent to ratify SALT II. There weren’t enough votes to do this after a series of damaging developments, topped by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Clinton experienced the same fate. Some believed that Republican Senators would not vote against a test ban treaty in the run-up to an election year. They were wrong. Clinton secured ratification of the CWC but not the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In between these two ratification votes, Clinton was a marked man. His nemesis was Kenneth W. Starr, who pursued wrongdoing in an Arkansas land deal, found none, but then hit pay dirt with Clinton’s sexual dalliance. The Republican-led House of Representatives formally adopted two articles of impeachment instead of censuring Clinton. In retrospect, these proceedings marked the intensification of a new, poisonous era of partisan politics on Capitol Hill that continues to plague U.S. democracy.

If the same standards that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment were applied to Donald Trump, we would now be in the second year of the Pence presidency. By the luck of the draw, Trump’s inquisitor was Robert Mueller and not Kenneth W. Starr. Mueller was as reluctant to draw harsh conclusions as Starr was the aggressive moral scold. But Trump keeps topping himself. One day after Mueller’s ineffectual testimony on Capitol Hill, he sought help from the President of Ukraine while putting on the squeeze.

Only Trump’s most partisan defenders will claim there was no quid pro quo involved in Trump’s hinting at the obvious. And even this flimsy defense could well crumble as witnesses provide detailed testimony to avoid legal difficulties, including charges of obstruction of the impeachment inquiry.

It’s bad for American Democracy to make a habit of impeaching Presidents. It’s worse for American Democracy when a President leaves Members of Congress without a better choice.

What might this mean for arms control? These proceedings won’t weaken Trump the way they weakened Clinton because Trump, unlike Clinton, appears unable to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in our lives.

Assuming Trump survives a trial in the Senate after an impeachment vote in the House of Representatives, the only useful step that is within his capabilities would be to extend New START’s limitations and inspections for another five years. This would impose no constraints on the United States, as new missiles, submarines and bombers would not be deployed in this interim period, and because they would be replacements, not add-ons. The time gained in New START’s extension could be usefully spent in fashioning something better to replace it.

In the wake of impeachment proceedings and in the absence of John Bolton, the odds aren’t quite as long against extending New START. Nevertheless, New START is an Obama accomplishment, and thus a red flag to Trump. The bigger picture remains forbidding, whether New START is extended or not. The daunting project before us to reduce nuclear dangers and weapons requires bipartisanship, and another impeachment is likely to harden partisan divides even more.


  1. Phil Tanny (History)

    Widespread blindness on the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons is truly breathtaking. As example, we’re currently in a Presidential campaign with thousands of professional journalists all hoping to be the one to ask “the big question”. To my knowledge, none of them have asked any candidate for the office this question.

    “If elected you may be called upon to incinerate millions of human beings based on limited information and almost no warning. Are you prepared to do that?”

    A single person can, on their sole authority, push a button and bring modern civilization to an end. And we can’t be bothered to ask them about that. The word insanity seems so inadequate.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      The more popular version of the question goes something like this: “And are you prepared to do all this on a moment’s notice after being woken up from deep sleep at 3 am in the morning?” I think the popular notion is, “If you can’t say yes, you can’t be President.”

      This answer fits in with the concept of deterrence, but overlooks the huge risk that deterrence failure could happen at any time. Unfortunately, the public is just not thinking much about nuclear weapons. The public must first wake up to the nuclear danger, before its response can be judged sane or insane.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      I fear the one who comes up with a quick, clear, and confident answer to that question is probably the last one you want as president.

  2. Anonymous (History)

    What is with Trump withdrawing from Open Skies Treaty. I can see no logic for US strategy in doing so. I don’t understand why this is to Trump’s advantage. As the US benefits far more by reconnaissance flights to review Putin’s illegal (absurd or in violation of treaty) weapons systems than the reverse, I see this as a gift to Putin and possibly disloyalty to the defense of the United States from nuclear strategic weapons. To have a random number generator as President destroying our monitoring of the adversary is too dangerous to countenance.

    Prof Krepon, please write an article analyzing the benefits of Open Skies for the press’s background.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      biggest winner: Russia.
      Biggest losers: the United States, Ukraine, Baltic States.
      Now, if I were conspiratorially minded…