Michael KreponNorm Building, National Sovereignty and Arms Control

Quote of the week:

“How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.” — Senator Joseph McCarthy’s attack on former Secretary of State George Marshall, 1951

If the norms of responsible rhetoric are trashed, they can be rehabilitated at the ballot box. If the norms of responsible behavior among states possessing nuclear weapons are weak, remedies are much harder.

A crucial international norm is respect for the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of states. When this norm is broken — especially when it is broken by a state possessing nuclear weapons — several remedies are called for. One is economic punishment for the norm breaker. Another is nonrecognition of territorial gains by military means. Defense ties with friends and allies need to be strengthened. Another is the resumption of proper channels of communication and negotiations to reduce nuclear danger.

Arm control takes a hit when the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of a state are trampled. Arms control is revived because competition between states possessing nuclear weapons in endemic in crisis-prone regions. These crises are inherently dangerous. Competing states that possess nuclear weapons need guardrails for their competition.

Arms control provides the guardrails. It’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. We can punish a state that disrespects the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of another while strengthening ties with friends and neighbors. We can strengthen deterrence, but deterrence without reassurance is dangerous. We therefore negotiate with the norm breaker to seek common ground reducing nuclear danger.

Strategic arms control has been tacitly and explicitly linked to the principles of respecting the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of states, as well as on the peaceful settlement of disputes, especially where territorial boundaries are contested.

The first effort to establish these “agreed principles” was explicitly designed to facilitate disarmament measures. This initiative came at the same time as the creation of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency — a linkage that was not accidental. The Kennedy administration official responsible for both was John J. McCloy. McCloy worked with Arthur Dean, another veteran Cold War negotiator, to hammer out this language with Valerian Zorin, a high-ranking Soviet Foreign Ministry official. The McCloy-Zorin “Joint Statement of Agreed Principles for Disarmament Negotiations,” was released in September 1961.

Thirteen months after the McCloy-Zorin agreement was announced, Zorin found himself in the awkward position of defending the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba as the Soviet Union’s Ambassador to the United Nations. Still, Kennedy persisted with negotiations after the crisis was over. The result was a treaty banning nuclear tests everywhere but underground.

These principles were essentially repeated in a statement signed by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev at the Moscow summit in May 1972 that produced the SALT I Interim Agreement and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Raymond Garthoff called these principles “a charter for détente.”

The 1972 Nixon-Brezhnev Basic Principles Agreement also foundered quickly. During the 1973 Middle East War, Moscow signaled support for friendly Arab states by its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, and Washington signaled its support for Israel by raising the alert rate of its strategic forces. Still, Nixon persisted. He sought to cap deployed forces at Vladivostok and signed the Threshold Test Ban Treaty.

The next major milestone for reasserting these principles was the Helsinki Final Act in 1975 that seemingly codified the East-West divide in Europe. President Gerald Ford was flayed for signing it and for selling out the captive nations of Eastern Europe by critics of détente, led by Senator Henry Jackson and Ford’s Republican primary opponent, Ronald Reagan.

As it happened, one of the supporters of the Helsinki Final Act was Mikhail Gorbachev, and in a thoroughly unexpected way, the Helsinki Final Act contributed to the independence of captive nations and peoples.

These principles applied not just to Europe; they were universal in character. The Soviet Union thoroughly trashed the Helsinki Accord’s principles when the Kremlin’s old guard decided to send Soviet troops into Afghanistan to save a friendly but deteriorating regime.

Prospects for the Senate’s consent to ratify SALT II were troubled before the invasion of Afghanistan and were nullified after it. Similarly, prospects for new arms control and reduction accords ground to a halt in 2014 when Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and conducted hybrid warfare in eastern Ukraine.

Putin’s actions were in direct contravention of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, as well as British Prime Minister John Major. The Budapest Memorandum committed Russia to “respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine” and to “refrain from the threat or use of force” against Ukraine. In response to NATO expansion and another popular revolution threatening to remove Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence, Putin disregarded Yeltsin’s pledge.

The United States and many others responded with sanctions. Constructive diplomacy took a short hiatus, just as was the case after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Guiding principles can withstand jockeying for advantage, but not Moscow’s military campaigns across borders.

Competition to seek advantage and to avoid disadvantage is endemic to international relations. This competition makes arms control more, not less, useful. National leaders pursue arms control because a strategic competition without guardrails is too dangerous.

Ronald Reagan resumed arms control talks with Moscow within two years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Likewise, the Trump administration resumed talks with Moscow after Moscow trashed Ukrainian sovereignty.

Reagan proved that it was possible to negotiate with and penalize Moscow at one and the same time. Trump’s relationship with Moscow has been deeply disturbing and entirely different from any of his predecessors. His successor will revert to past practice, negotiating to reduce nuclear danger while increasing the costs to Moscow for disregarding the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbor.