Michael KreponA Decade of Regression and Dismantlement

Religious teaching of the week:

“With deep conviction I wish once more to declare that the use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home.” – His Holiness Pope Francis

Motto of the week:

“Be Here Now” – Ram Dass

Nuclear historians will have little choice but to characterize the decade of the 2010s as one of regression and dismantlement.

The Bomb hasn’t changed all that much since the 1950s. Sure, there have been refinements in the device’s destructive effects and means of delivery, but the basics continue to be basic: The Bomb’s utility vanishes after use against a similarly armed adversary. Deterrence is costly; use is far costlier.

While the Bomb hasn’t changed, our thinking about the Bomb has. We’ve regressed. It was a year when one of the hardest won accomplishments of nuclear negotiations – transparency – was deemed a liability with respect to the Open Skies Treaty. In Washington, not Moscow! It was a year when the Russian Federation deployed MIRVed liquid-fueled ICBMs in silos — a retro 1970s move, purely recidivist and regressive, since the time it takes to fuel these brutes is likely to be longer than the time it would take for warheads to destroy them. It was also a year when the Pentagon decided that placing a warhead with tactical nuclear weapon effects atop Trident missiles was a good idea.

The latest scary “new thing” about nuclear weapons – hypervelocity/glide weapons that travel intercontinental distances – is less meaningful than advertised. ICBMs and SLBMs also travel at hyper-speeds, and they’ve been around for many decades. The “old-fashioned” way of delivering warheads is more accurate and still effective, since missile defenses have yet to solve the problem of intercepting warheads accompanied by penetration aids. Because they are likely to be less accurate, hypervelocity/glide weapons will probably become a niche weapon used as city killers. How’s that for regression?

It was also a year of dismantlement. The INF Treaty died. Another year when the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and its related confidence- and security measures were in limbo. A year when Donald Trump and his revolving team of advisers teed up the Open Skies Treaty for withdrawal. A year when the last remnant of nuclear arms control –New START – awaits execution or extension.

The perpetrators had their reasons for regression and dismantling the grand construction projects of strategic and conventional arms control. They boil down to the desire for freedom of action and rejection of the post-Cold War order. The Kremlin and the Washington-based, Nationalist Republican Party have different reasons for heading toward the exits, but they are mutually corrosive.

Strategic and conventional arms control have always been intertwined. Success in one sphere is inconceivable without the other: countries don’t dismantle oversized nuclear arsenals when they suspect an adversary is preparing to fight and win conventional warfare. The 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty predated by one year the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The demise of the Soviet Union and its bloated military-industrial complex then allowed for far deeper cuts in strategic offensive arms.

Dismantlement, whether for arms control or anti-arms control, is contagious. Moscow and Washington both contributed to the Great Unraveling. Decisions by Gorbachev and Yeltsin offended many at home, not just with respect to the economy, but also in bowing to Washington’s predominance. Countermoves could be expected after the Russian Federation revived from the Soviet Union’s dissolution and a Great Depression.

Washington’s contributions to the unraveling of the post-Cold War order came via NATO’s expansion and the use of force in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. In my view, only one of these moves — stopping Serbian war crimes — was strategically sound. We can debate NATO expansion in another post.

While Moscow was licking its wounds, Washington was busy creating new ones by misusing U.S. power and dissipating its international standing. The war in Afghanistan cannot be explained to those who sacrificed the most during and after its prosecution, much like Vietnam. The big victor in the Pottery Barn war to topple Saddam Hussein was Iran. This war continues to radiate chaos in a region that the Bush administration sought to remake through a toxic mix of hubris and anxiety. Traumatized by 9/11, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the Vulcans around Bush couldn’t see this coming.

The New World Order that Bush père envisioned is now unrecognizable, thanks in great measure to Bush fils. Maintaining the grand treaty construction projects of the father, topped off by de-MIRVing land-based missiles, was deemed by “W” and his advisers to be a lower priority than fielding national missile defenses that still do not work. Once the ABM Treaty was off the boards, other nuclear and conventional arms control treaties fell like dominoes.

One after the other, recent Presidents have handed the baton to successors who have made U-turns. Bill Clinton tried to adapt the ABM Treaty to deal with outliers, only to have George W. Bush kill the Treaty outright. Barack Obama left decisions – such as New START’s extension – to his successor, assuming it would be Hillary Clinton. Then came Donald Trump, the Great Disruptor.

The nuclear safety net for the two major powers is being slashed. This doesn’t mean that an arms race will follow because strategic modernization programs are hellishly expensive. But it does mean that New START’s numbers and inspections are all that remain from five decades of hard labor to stabilize offsetting strategic offensive forces.

The New Year is a time for appreciation and gratitude, not for licking our wounds. If you can celebrate, by all means. Tough fights lie ahead, along with a monumentally important U.S. national election.


  1. Carlo Trezza (History)

    The conclusion I draw from Michael’s article is that the vulnerability of the US remains unchanged despite the trillions spent in the past decades.”Chapeau “ to the two presidents (Bush junior and Trump) who are the authors of this diplomatic masterpiece!

  2. E. Rhym (History)


    The INF and CFE Treaties died over a decade ago — when Russia repeatedly demanded the latter (CFE) be modified and “suggested” the former (INF) be “jointly” terminated by Russia and the United States — all to accommodate Russian national interests.

    The G.W. Bush Administration declined Russia’s demands, Russia responded by unlawfully suspending its implementation of CFE and illegally developing intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) in direct violation of INF.

    BOTH the Obama and Trump Administrations tried repeatedly to bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty. For YEARS the United States continued to adhere to INF, despite Russia’s ongoing, deliberate and illegal development of INF-prohibited GLCMs. BOTH the Obama and Trump Administrations warned Russia repeatedly there would be consequences to their illegal activity–which could not be tolerated indefinitely.


    Fault for the demise of INF and CFE falls squarely on the Russian Federation, not the United States.

    As for the Open Skies Treaty, I make two points. First, fault for its impending demise also falls on Russia, not the United States. For it is Russia that is flaunting its implementation requirements, not the United States. (Same can be said of the Vienna Document, by the way, which you failed to mention.) Moreover, other parties to the agreement have scaled back their participation in conducting active missions–again, not the United States.

    Second, it is worth noting that the Open Skies agreement was first proposed in 1955 by President Eisenhower as a means to observe strategic capabilities of other nations, including adversaries, that could not otherwise be observed. However, the Open Skies Treaty did not enter into force until 47 years later in 2002 — yep, under the G.W. Bush’s Administration (so much for disparaging that administration’s arms control record — the real world is more complicated, you see). Notably, though, the original purpose of the agreement (i.e., reconnaissance) was no longer necessary, given the development of satellites. Instead, this agreement entered into force as a goodwill gesture vice an intelligence gathering tool. And, hey, who’s against such efforts at fostering goodwill among nations? Ordinarily, our nation deems the expense of such efforts worthwhile (yes, OST costs money to implement!). But when the key Party to the agreement — from our perspective — flaunts its rules, even when politely asked not to do so, where is the goodwill in that? What worth is the hassle when one nation, Russia (NOT the United States), acts in utter disregard to the terms of agreement to defeat is purpose – both real and supposed?

    Russia has made a pattern of violating and flaunting arms control agreements TO WHICH IT REMAINS A PARTY!!! The BLAME for the collapse of the arms control regime lies squarely in Russia’s court. Not the United States. Enough of your nonsense about U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty — from which we LEGALLY WITHDREW by the terms of the agreement (same is true for INF by the way). We did not violate the ABM Treaty before we withdrew — again, unlike Russia — which even you, Michael, admitted in a previous article violated when they deployed their illegal radar near Krasnoyarsk.in the mid-1980s, over 15 years before the United States lawfully withdrew from the agreement (and over a decade after our official treaty partner, the USSR, ceased to exist).

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