Michael KreponSALT I, Fifty Years On

Quote of the week:

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… Have you no sense of decency, sir?”  – Attorney Joseph Welch, addressing Senator Joseph McCarthy during the “Army-McCarthy” witch hunt hearings, 1954

My colleague, the indefatigable and indispensable Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, reminds us that this is the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the SALT I negotiations. These talks produced an Interim Agreement that was riddled with loopholes and that failed to prevent MIRVs. These talks also produced the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty that mandated reality – national vulnerability to sophisticated ballistic missile attacks.

The head of the U.S. delegation was the second Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Gerard Smith. Smith and his fellow negotiators, including Paul Nitze, were “buffaloed” (Smith’s word) by Nixon and Kissinger who, unbeknownst to the delegation, also negotiated through a backchannel to Soviet Ambassador Anatoli Dobrynin.

How shall we assess the SALT I Accords? Here are excerpts from my work in progress on the rise and demise of nuclear arms control:

Despite the serious deficiencies of the Interim Agreement, it was still an historic accomplishment. For the first time ever during the Nuclear Age, Washington and Moscow began to codify and set limits on their nuclear competition. They began to discuss what were state secrets in the Soviet Union. Nixon and Kissinger tried to order and stabilize the superpowers’ balance of strategic forces. While nuclear offenses were only loosely constrained, they initiated a process that eventually resulted in comprehensive controls and surprisingly deep cuts. Nixon and Kissinger proved the hypothesis that the Kremlin was seriously interested in restraining the strategic competition.

Nixon, Kissinger and the SALT I negotiating team deserve credit for achieving the first ever limitations on strategic offensive forces. They deserve more credit for the ABM Treaty that foreclosed expensive and ineffective defenses against ballistic missile attacks. The ABM Treaty was a necessary condition for deep cuts in strategic offenses when political conditions permitted this result in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

In contrast to the Interim Agreement, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was an immediate and longer-lasting accomplishment. Despite those who would subsequently rail at a treaty mandating national vulnerability, the technologies for successful intercepts against sophisticated offenses were clearly beyond reach in 1972. This remains true five decades later. The odds were clearly stacked against nationwide defenses during Nixon’s administration: the public around areas to be defended was resistant, the Pentagon leery of spending considerable sums of money in this way, and the Congress starkly divided about their utility.

By agreeing to a treaty strictly limiting missile defenses, Nixon and Kissinger established a framework that facilitated deep cuts. Since the companion framework limiting strategic offenses abetted arms racing, the SALT I Accords were deeply inconsistent and yet reflected technological and political reality. National leaders worried about each other’s strategic modernization programs and didn’t trust the alternative of ambitious diplomacy. The first step in controlling strategic offenses had to be a partial step, just as the first negotiating step in controlling nuclear testing was limited rather than comprehensive.

The Nixon administration started to build scaffolding that eventually led to the control and reduction of strategic arms. This scaffolding needed to go up before the build-down in nuclear force levels could occur. An entirely novel approach conceptualized a decade earlier — nuclear arms control — was attempted. Agreed terminology and definitions were hammered out. Monitoring arrangements were built out. Domestic politics were supportive and then disruptive, but over time, the fundamental strength of the American system and the internal weaknesses of the Soviet Union led to extraordinarily favorable results.

With two decades of intense labor, aided by the demise of the Soviet Union, a comprehensive framework for reducing strategic offenses would catch up to and reinforce the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The breakthrough came with the strange alchemy of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, who dismissed deterrence orthodoxy and shifted the negotiating construct from control to reduction.

Reagan’s successor, President George Herbert Walker Bush, finally completed negotiations on two strategic arms reduction treaties, the latter in 1993 banning land-based missiles carrying MIRVs. With this ban and the companion ABM Treaty on the books, the conditions for long-term strategic stability were finally in place. The conceptualizers of nuclear arms control would be vindicated, and Nixon and Kissinger’s expediency in negotiating the Interim Agreement would finally be corrected. Their sales pitches would belatedly become true.

And then, when conditions were at last in place for long-term strategic stability, this edifice was no longer deemed relevant to a “unipolar” world where the sole superpower was bothered by Lilliputians bearing missiles. President George W. Bush jettisoned the ABM Treaty as too confining and not sufficiently adaptable during a period of extreme anxiety after the 9/11 attacks. Vladimir Putin then ditched the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and its ban on MIRVed ICBMs. U.S. critics who defined arms control as a straight jacket against American freedom of action then took aim at other treaties.

Only one treaty — New START — remains in place, reflecting decades of hard labor to control, reduce and monitor strategic offensive forces. Its fate now lies in the hands of Donald Trump.

Pin It on Pinterest