Michael KreponTrilateral Negotiations to Count Every Warhead

Lyric of the week:

“Hey! Said my name is called Disturbance” – Rolling Stones, “Street Fighting Man”

Strategic arms control has served us well. We have all been safer because of it. Starting from scratch with Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, negotiations initially produced a porous Interim Agreement in 1972. MIRVs multiplied the size of arsenals and then, tentatively, caps were negotiated, but they were very high. Then came deep reductions once political and geopolitical conditions permitted.

A process that began with Brezhnev asking his nervous SALT negotiator to choose which prison he wanted to be interned in if he spilled state secrets culminated in hundreds of on-site inspections to check out production facilities, missile bases and the numbers of warheads atop missiles. All this transpired as a result of immense diplomatic effort and resolve over four decades.

One key to success was the acceptance of on-site inspections. It took sixteen years after the SALT negotiations started for the Kremlin to accept them. Another key to success was the tandem of deterrence orthodoxy busters, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. Their INF Treaty paved the way for deep cuts in strategic arsenals.

This extraordinary success story could now be coming to an end. There’s only one remaining strategic arms limitation accord. George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin started the process of shedding treaties. Donald Trump and Putin have accelerated it. They have placed strategic arms control on a ventilator.

Trump now says he wants Putin to agree to a new negotiating framework to count every warhead. And he wants China to be a part of this ambitious undertaking. He reportedly asked Putin to persuade Beijing to join the confab, dangling the prospect of New START’s extension as an incentive. Beijing isn’t going to be a party to these preliminary discussions, and Putin has waved off Trump’s request.

So what are we to make of all this? Is Trump’s new strategic arms proposal a scam or a noble pursuit? In my view, it’s both.

The notion of counting every Russian and Chinese nuclear warhead is no more off the wall that Paul Nitze’s strategic concept, which attempted in a few short paragraphs to weave together Reagan’s twin hopes of an astrodome defense and the elimination of nuclear weapons. Nitze made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, laying out a staged approach that achieved much and left the pipe dreams for later. In doing so, Nitze helped George Shultz and Reagan break the back of the nuclear arms race.

Those who played key roles in the ‘count every Russian and Chinese warhead’ proposal — Tom Cotton, John Bolton and Tim Morrison, among them — are not to be confused with George Shultz and Paul Nitze. Nor is Trump to be confused with Reagan or any of the other Presidents who built the edifice that Trump is tearing down. He’s been sold on a proposal that is initially bound to fail but is right up his alley. Trump’s sweet spot is to go big and bold, to act out, to ruffle feathers and keep ’em sputtering.

To hold New START’s extension hostage to a plan to count every Russian and Chinese warhead is overkill. And too clever by more than half.

Trump’s National Security Strategy and the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review say that we live at a time marked by the return of major power rivalry. This is an accurate description of the world we live in.

What can nuclear arms control accomplish in this period of intensified rivalry? Trump’s answer is an agreement far more ambitious than what was accomplished in SALT and START over four decades.

Trump will declare victory just by having the U.S. and Russian negotiators meet to discuss his new framework. And then probably forget about it and move on. He doesn’t do diplomacy. He has not one diplomatic accomplishment to his name, so he defines success as tear downs. He has none of the skills needed to succeed at the hard work of reducing nuclear dangers and weapons: knowledge, commitment, perseverance, and diplomatic savvy.

And yet he has been persuaded by those who seek the tear down of the last strategic arms control treaty standing to seek a worthwhile goal. I’m in favor of aspirational goals. The proposal to count every Russian and Chinese warhead is quite aspirational, like the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons. Aspirational goals can point us in the right direction. Hard political and geopolitical realities intrude, but we persevere. You make progress haltingly at first, and you make significant progress when relations between major powers permit.

Political and geopolitical conditions are not conducive at present to great leaps forward. Right now, a small step forward will do: extending New START for a full five years. It could take that long, or longer, to negotiate the first step of a more ambitious and inclusive approach.

Long after Trump has left the White House, well intentioned people will be working toward his worthwhile goal, step by step. Success will be harder if New START goes by the boards. Annual extensions of New START to leverage Putin, as proposed by Eric Edelman and Franklin Miller, two analysts I respect but don’t always agree with, is not a good idea. A serious shift toward more expansive controls will take time and would be disrupted by annual domestic food fights over whether there has been enough progress to warrant an extension. You don’t build something better by subtracting existing verification arrangements and limitations.

It’s easy to succeed in negotiations if your objective is failure and freedom of action. This formula for success takes no heavy lifting: demand negotiating outcomes that have no realistic prospect of success and couch these demands in reasonably sounding terms. Demand nothing less, because your opening position is a matter of principle and not a commodity to be traded. That way, if a subsequent administration actually makes headway, you can oppose whatever has been negotiated as being insufficient. We all know this drill.

Given Trump’s track record, and given the prior handiwork of Senator Cotton, Bolton and Morrison, it’s reasonable to assume that their definition of success is failure. Failure would buy time, time to get U.S production lines as warm as they are in Russia and China.

A worthwhile goal that will take a long time to reach fruition becomes a scam when it is used to exit a treaty that makes us safer. If Trump walks away from New START or agrees to only a short extension, then we’ll know that his idea of a better deal is no deal at all. We’ll know it’s another scam because progress toward his worthwhile goal will be even harder to negotiate if New START dies.


  1. jeannick Guerin (History)

    ” once political and geopolitical conditions permitted.”

    Treaties are expression of self interest wrapped in mutual goodwill ,
    there is very little of that last one nowadays ,
    maybe the full elimination of any treaties is a necessary step to rebuild something

    if there is a modicum of good faith and reason this would be benign , if not ….not

    there also is the inconvenient truth of budgetary matter ,
    one of the parties has a checkered record

  2. Tex (History)

    the analysis appears to be binary; no win/no win. If there is a 3rd way why isnt it presented to help or give aspirations?