Michael KreponCan Beijing Make Good Trouble?

Lyric of the week:

All alone the captain stands
Hasn’t heard
From his deck hands
The gambler tips his hat
And walks towards the door
It’s the second half
Of the cruise
And you know he hates to lose
–Neil Young, “Cripple Creek Ferry”

Quote of the week:

“Something further may follow of this Masquerade”
–Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man

The Trump administration has embarked on a sunset cruise to count every Russian and Chinese warhead. It’s a noble destination, one that I endorse. It’s also an ill-fated voyage if it means that next steps to stabilize the nuclear arms competition and to reduce warheads and risk taking must await this port of call.

The Captain of this cruise is a confidence man and a gambler. He’s been sold a bill of goods and now he’s selling it to us. He’s thrown the dice without being aware of the downstream consequences. The authors and strongest backers of this proposal – John Bolton, Senator Tom Cotton, Tim Morrison, and Marshall Billingslea, among them – have demonstrated more interest in treaty tear downs and strategic modernization programs than in new agreements. Indeed, they seek no new arms limitations or reductions. Instead, they seek a transparency measure. Failing to make progress, they threaten a short extension of New START.

This film flam isn’t hard to discern. Beijing will have no part of a count-every-warhead negotiation, so its absence gives license to those who seek to shorten New START’s lifespan. A pause in treaty negotiations would suit them just fine as strategic modernization programs proceed. The shorter the extension for New START, the greater the degree of difficulty to negotiate something better.

Pulling the plug on New START means ending intrusive monitoring of nuclear facilities and counting the very warheads atop missile launchers that supporters of Trump’s initiative say they want.

A brief extension of New START would also mean the premature death of strategic arms treaty protections of national technical means to monitor compliance. If you are worried about warfare in space and think that treaty protections against interfering with satellites, however modest, are a good thing, then you would logically conclude that extending New START for a full five years is also a good thing.

Backers of the count-every-warhead initiative seem comfortable with these losses. They’re playing for higher stakes — liberation from treaty constraints. They hint broadly that if Beijing keeps its distance from three-nation talks, the result would be a short stay of execution for New START. This was the game plan that Bolton sold Trump, as revealed in his White House memoir, The Room Where it Happened. This plan is being executed long after Bolton and Trump’s messy divorce.

Beijing has clarified that it won’t be a party to count-every-warhead talks, and Moscow has clarified that it won’t be carrying Trump’s water to convince Beijing to join. Putin has dropped his conditions for a five-year extension – conditions likely to be reintroduced when New START dies – so the ball on extension is in Trump’s court.

Maybe it’s the well water I’m drinking here on Tom Mountain, but I harbor the fanciful idea that Beijing will figure out how to make ‘good trouble,’ to use John Lewis’s phrase, to extend New START for a full five years — a goal China endorses. I propose that Beijing condition its participation in three-nation talks to Trump’s OK to a full five-year extension of New START.

In my dreamscape, Beijing figures out that if it joins Moscow, the math becomes two against one. With both China and Russia rejecting a count-every-warhead agenda, they could propose discussing more incremental transparency measures along with a norms-based approach to reduce nuclear danger.

What if Beijing maintained its staunch opposition to Trump’s count-every-warhead initiative and instead proposed a three-party agreement to extend the foundational norms of no battlefield use and no testing of nuclear weapons? Wouldn’t that be interesting?

This would throw sand in the gears of a short New START extension, just as Mikhail Gorbachev’s threw sand in the gears by accepting the Zero Option in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces talks. The Kremlin was supposed to say “nyet” to zero, allowing those in the Reagan administration who sought new missile deployments to proceed. Instead, they got a treaty preventing deployments.

Saying “shi” to Trump’s call for three-nation talks could again upend the calculations of those counting on the answer being “méiyǒu.”

Is Beijing savvy enough to move beyond ‘Hell, no?’ I’m not betting on it. We’re all too deeply hunched in the foxholes we’ve dug to realize the possible consequences of proposing three-nation talks where two of the three are strategic partners.

But, hey, it’s my dreamscape. I can imagine Beijing making good trouble by saying ‘yes’ to three-nation talks while changing the focus of discussion. At the very least, this would expose the film flam game underway for a short extension of New START.


  1. E. Rhym (History)

    New START has only one meaningful limit — 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM/SLBM launchers and Heavy Bombers (HB). (The other two “central limits” are illusory, easily breached.) Considering Russian nuclear force modernization, which is nearing completion, has been accomplished with very little (if any) transparency afforded to the United States by the New START Treaty (NST), the United States would be better served to focus on modernizing its own aging forces rather than engaging in paper peace.

    Both technology and the international security environment have changed in the past decade to the degree that the New START Treaty, which was a fundamentally flawed and weak agreement at its inception, has now been completely outpaced by developments. Neither the Russians nor the Chinese have any interest negotiating a new agreement designed to constrain their forces in a meaningful way relevant to U.S. national security–especially not if they can extend NST to maintain launcher/HB limits on U.S. force structure while leaving their own force modernization unfettered. No, the best way to bring about necessary conditions precedent to truly meaningful arms control that is beneficial to U.S. national security is to allow the New START Treaty to expire in February 2021, and proceed diligently with U.S. nuclear force modernization.

    Working earnestly to prepare for our own security is the best way to bring to bear on the Russians and the Chinese the importance for rapprochemont and transparency in great power competition.

Pin It on Pinterest