Michael KreponDisruption and Regression

Quote of the week:

“When Presidents become negotiators no escape routes are left for diplomacy. Concessions are irrevocable without dishonor. A stalemate stakes the personal prestige of the office; a mistake requires an admission of error. And since heads of government would not have chosen this career without a healthy dose of ego, negotiations can rapidly deteriorate from intractability to confrontation.” — Henry Kissinger, White House Years

How do you persuade a President who skates erratically over the surface of important matters to dump the hard-won achievements of his predecessors? Thanks to Tim Morrison, recently of the National Security Council staff, we have the formula. You appeal to his vanity and fondness for disruption. Then you adopt a negotiating posture that won’t work and choose a negotiator who defines failure as success.

Trump has already withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade compact, the Paris Climate Accord, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Iran nuclear deal. By lamely demanding that European parties to the Open Skies Treaty persuade Russia to “fix” his administration’s overdrawn complaints, Trump is on course to withdraw from yet another treaty.

To top off this unprecedented record of withdrawals, tear down artists like Tim and his lodestar, John Bolton, are taking aim at New START – the last manifestation of five decades worth of effort by Republican and Democratic administrations to put in place bilateral reductions on strategic forces and on-site inspections that help monitor compliance.

Trump is The Great Disruptor. By any other yardstick, he is an abysmal failure. But if you measure success by disruption and measure disruption by withdrawing from agreements, Trump is in a league of his own. It’s not even close, since none of his predecessors has withdrawn from a single treaty because of Moscow’s misbehavior. Instead, they reversed noncompliance or succeeded at workarounds.

Previous Presidents have managed to create a manageable global nuclear order despite an international system that is prone to anarchy. Proliferation has been reduced to one or two bomb-seekers. Think of the alternative without a viable Nonproliferation Treaty. Nuclear weapons have not been used on battlefields for three-quarters of a century. The strategic arsenals of the Big Two have been greatly reduced by virtue of agreements that are backed up by on-site inspections. These are remarkable achievements, and every President since Eisenhower has contributed to them. Up until now.

What virtue lies in disrupting the global nuclear order? What benefits derive from trashing treaties, or by disrupting the basis for future negotiations? The only virtue we hear is that of freedom of action, but the more freedom of action the executive branch seeks, the more it will be curtailed by the legislative branch.

It doesn’t take heavy lifting to convince the Disruptor-in-Chief to disrupt. He has convinced himself that environmental protection and trade compacts are bad for profits and manufacturing. As for agreements that reduce nuclear dangers and weapons, Trump has been persuaded by two simple arguments: either that Russian cheating disadvantages the United States or that China must be included.

The only apparent circumstance when Donald Trump appears to be moved to act in response to Russian misbehavior is when it comes to treaties. Moscow’s cheating can be substantive (the INF Treaty) or negligible and easily countermanded (the Open Skies Treaty). Either way, treaty bashers wish to head for the exits.

A tried and true device for getting the ball rolling is for one or more of the loudest voices in the Republican caucus to launch a trial balloon. Readers might recall that Senator Tom Cotton played this role in suggesting that, henceforth, Beijing must be included in strategic arms reductions. Public remarks by the Defense Intelligence Agency Director highlighted that the Chinese nuclear arsenal is likely to double over the next ten years. This is now a key talking point for not extending New START.

The Chinese strategic modernization program is real, but before lighting our hair on fire, consider this: A doubling at this rate over a second decade, and then a third decade and then a fourth decade after that would put Beijing ahead of the United States and Russia – if Washington and Moscow sit on their hands. But no matter: According to disruptors and their cohort, it’s essential to include China in a follow-on to New START.

Some of us recall Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s unwilling defense in 1967 of a “thin” national missile defense system against the China threat. On paper, this “Sentinel” national missile defense, if fully deployed, would include 672 interceptor missiles at seventeen locations in the Continental United States. Another 28 interceptors were planned for Hawaii, making the total 700 in all. At the time of the Sentinel system’s unveiling, the Soviet Union possessed less than 900 land- and sea-based launchers capable of reaching the United States. China, the ostensible reason for deployment, would not flight test a ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States for another thirteen years.

The arguments that Beijing must be included in a follow-on to New START and that New START shouldn’t be extended are as weak as the argument in 1967 that the United States needed 700 interceptors to deal with the ballistic missile threat from China.

I argue that we should try to include China and every other state possessing nuclear arms in a norms-based regime built around no battlefield use, no nuclear testing, and nonproliferation. It will, however, be harder to get the Trump administration on board than Beijing.

A norms-based multilateral system can help pick up the pieces after Trump; a trilateral strategic arms restraint regime based on numbers is not achievable during or after Trump. Think about what it means to demand that Beijing must be included in a numbers-based trilateral agreement: Either Washington and Moscow build down to Beijing’s level or Beijing builds up to the Big Two nuclear arsenals. Both prospects are as likely as Donald Trump mastering strategic nuance.

A third option is that Beijing formally agrees to a much lower number than Washington and Moscow, but the more Washington presses for this outcome, the more inclined Beijing will be to oppose what it has been informally willing to accept. If you truly believe that China must be included in some fashion and in some form of strategic restraint regime, this prospect is not advanced by letting New START limits lapse. But the motivating spirit behind arguing Beijing’s inclusion in a numbers-based regime isn’t the pursuit of success; it’s to ensure failure.

This isn’t the first time that treaty opponents demanded outcomes that they were sure would be rejected, thereby trying to deep-six a negotiated outcome. Richard Perle was a master of this black art, authoring the Zero Option in INF and “anytime, anywhere” inspections for the Chemical Weapon Convention. Mikhail Gorbachev called the Reagan administration’s bluff in both cases. The Pentagon was then stuck with zero when it would have preferred a militarily significant deployment of INF missiles. The Reagan administration could accept zero but not anywhere, anytime inspections in the CWC. It turned instead to a “managed access” approach, which was feasible.

Treaty trashing is a form of regressive behavior. The assumption behind regressive thinking is that we’ll be safer without negotiated restraints. The last time we were this “safe” was during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.

Leaving the Open Skies Treaty is as regressive as not extending New START. In 1955 when Dwight D. Eisenhower first proposed Open Skies, the Kremlin wouldn’t hear of it. Transparency was unacceptable and cooperative over-flights were a form of spying. Now it’s Washington that shies away from transparency. Why be upset with Open Skies? Because the U.S. flies old unclassified sensors while Moscow has upgraded its unclassified sensors. Why is the Pentagon flying old sensors on rickety Open Skies aircraft? Because the Air Force and critics of Open Skies didn’t want to spend the money for upgrades. They abetted the conditions that now become reasons to head for the exits.

The arguments against extending New START are similarly disingenuous and pathetic. We hear that New START isn’t good enough. Therefore, no numbers are better than these numbers. We also hear that New START’s inspection provisions aren’t good enough; therefore, no inspections are better than these inspections.

Treaty trashing doesn’t require persuasive arguments with the Disruptor-in-Chief. Tear downs are simple. The global nuclear order becomes even more wobbly as a result. The re-build will be somebody else’s problem.