Michael KreponBiden’s Treaty Quandary

Quote of the week:

“Trumpism is, at heart, not a philosophy but an enemies list.” – Kevin D. Williamson

Lyric of the week:

“I wish I was a fisherman
Tumblin’ on the seas
Far away from dry land
And it’s bitter memories …
I wish I was the brakeman
On a hurtlin fevered train
Crashin head long into the heartland
Like a cannon in the rain”
–The Waterboys, “Fisherman’s Blues”

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will recruit the A-Team to try to stabilize and repair a battered country. The raft of problems they face have not been this daunting since FDR relieved Herbert Hoover of his duties. The country’s wounds can only be healed like a laceration of the skin: it takes time for new, healthy cells to replace damaged ones. Other wounds go far deeper. A body that has been under the surgeon’s knife carries these tell-tale scars for the duration. We carry our scars and get on with our lives. The country must, as well.

The cultural divide in the United States is wide and deep; bridging this divide won’t happen by characterizing “the other” as being deplorable. We have to be true to our values; this is what gives elections meaning. But our cultural divide now extends to policy differences, including arms control. If we can’t respect our differences and seek at least some common ground, then we’re back to trench warfare. If, however, others are committed to trench warfare, we’ll have to adapt accordingly.

Biden can accomplish much by bloated executive authority, as Trump did in an overwhelmingly negative way. Legislative accomplishment requires rising to the next level. It will be hard to get there. We didn’t have a Blue Wave election for reasons that are readily comprehensible, if not yet internalized. For new legislation to become Public Law, compromise will be needed, and few Republicans on Capitol Hill have a track record of cooperation.

The business of arms control is way harder than the business of passing legislation because treaties require the consent of two-thirds of those Senators present and voting. The business of arms control is harder still because of generational change in the Republican Party. The great treaty makers – Kissinger, Shultz, Scowcroft, and Baker – were deal makers. They worked for Presidents who employed the concepts of arms control to produce something uncommon and essential: they complemented deterrence, which is fundamentally dangerous, with instruments of reassurance called treaties.

Three rungs (or more) below these elder statesmen were sharp critics of arms control honing their bureaucratic chops. When time passed and deal makers left the stage, implacable foes of agreements that curtailed freedom of action rose through the ranks. Trump’s victory was their victory; they were empowered as never before. John Bolton held his nose working for Trump to slay treaties. After Tillerson and Mattis left, even stays of execution were hard to come by.

Democrats who win the presidency face a torrent of Republican criticism that sharply curtails their ambition. Carter, Clinton and Obama aimed high but had their wings clipped by domestic opposition and by a troubled world. They only got one bite of the apple when it came to treaty ratification.

Biden will be hard-pressed to get even that. The price for doing so, as with Obama, would be to assure Republican Senators by paying top dollar for strategic modernization programs. Carter came into the presidency refusing to play this game. He insisted on viewing each nuclear program on its merits. On this score, the B-1 bomber couldn’t cut it because stealthy cruise missiles were clearly a better investment. And the “neutron bomb” slated for West Germany – tactical nuclear weapons that provided a political windfall to Moscow by being easily caricatured as a capitalist tool that killed people but not buildings – needed to be shelved.

All of this later came back to bedevil Carter when he sought SALT II ratification. To help with balky Republicans, Carter belatedly played the game, plussing up the defense budget. Together with Harold Brown and William Perry – two of the best – he endorsed a cockamamie scheme for land-basing of the M-X (later Peacekeeper) missile. It wasn’t enough to ratify SALT II.

I dredge up this history because Biden and those around him will have to calculate whether to seek modest cuts from New START in treaty form, which means seeking Republican support that may not be forthcoming, even with plus-ups to strategic modernization accounts. The alternative is to make unilateral decisions to reshape the U.S. deterrent in ways that save money for usable instruments of national power.

Obama was unwilling to draw down unilaterally and Putin was unwilling to reduce further, leaving us with New START’s numbers. We’ll find out whether Biden thinks differently than Obama on this matter, and whether Putin’s calculations have changed. If so, new possibilities lie before us; if not, we face heavy weather. Either way, a five-year extension of New START is essential as a placeholder to lay the basis for next steps.


  1. AEL (History)

    Given the last decade and current political climate, why would Russia, China, Iran or even North Korea consider the USA “agreement capable”. Short of a binding treaty (and *that* isn’t going to happen) why bother wasting time on an executive agreement with America when it could (and likely would) all go poof in the next election.

  2. Martin von Tersch (History)

    Much to agree with here, but even if only briefly mentioning Carter and SALT-II, let’s recall that the USSR invaded Afghanistan as SALT-II was before the Senate. I believe Carter withdrew the treaty.

    • Alan Tomlinson (History)

      Post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. Carter withdrew the treaty because he knew it wouldn’t pass. The Soviet invasion was a convenient excuse for withdrawal.


      Alan Tomlinson