Michael KreponJoe Biden’s Turn

Lyrics of the week:

“Rescue me
Take me in your arms
Rescue me
I want your tender charm
‘Cause I’m lonely
And I’m blue
I need you
And your love too
Come on and rescue me”
— Fontella Bass, “Rescue Me”

“The river’s gonna rise
Wash our struggles away
The sun is gonna shine
Shine down on a brand new day
Yeah, we’re gonna rise up singing
Like a bird on the wing
A million hearts beating
To the rhythm that the new day brings”
— Warren Haynes, “River’s Gonna Rise”

We have been robbed of a joyous inaugural, but that’s OK. We can gather, peacefully and en masse, on subsequent occasions. What matters to us now is cleaning up messes and changing direction.

The biggest arms control messes — Iran and North Korea — will be handled by an experienced team led by Secretary of State-designate Tony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Deputy Secretary of State- designate Wendy Sherman. They know full well the minefields that lie ahead, bearing the scars of previous battles. They will be assisted by Bonnie Jenkins, who has been nominated to become the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control.

We’re all very familiar with the long list of issues besides Iran and North Korea that warrant near-term attention. New START will be extended very soon after the inauguration. It’s the foundation we’ve got. A short life extension doesn’t provide leverage to build something better. Instead, it hastens steps to break its verifiable bonds. A five-year extension will provide time to update New START’s provisions and secure something better.

There’s also no time to waste pursuing lasting revision to the President’s sole authority to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. This ground was covered in last week’s post and in this interview with Vipin Narang.

There will be an important Nonproliferation Treaty Review conference in the summer. This will take months of preparation. The Trump administration was heading for yet another train wreck. There is no time to waste taking actions that reframe the Trump administration’s approach.

There’s still another immediate agenda item – if the State Department’s leadership has enough bandwidth and agility to deal with it. Moscow has now announced its intention to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, following the Trump administration’s ill-advised decision to do so.

The Kremlin had been violating the Treaty at the margins in ways that could be worked around. In retaliation, the United States imposed even greater flight restrictions on Russian overflights. Another stated reason for the Trump administration’s withdrawal was because Russian overflights purportedly fostered greater U.S. vulnerabilities to cyber warfare. These vulnerabilities were, however, quite independent of treaty overflights. The problem was at the back door, not overhead.

The Trump administration’s reasons for withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty made sense only to America Firsters and to those ideologically opposed to treaties. One easy way for the Biden administration to demonstrate its recommitment to NATO allies and strengthen ties to states around Russia’s periphery is to rejoin the Open Skies Treaty while the clock is ticking during the six month period before Moscow’s withdrawal becomes official.

The Trump administration withdrew from this treaty without providing Congressional notice, as required by Public Law. By rejoining the Treaty, the Biden administration could challenge Moscow to change course. Moscow would then have the choice of becoming the outlier or returning to the fold.

Previous administrations have not employed overflights to their fullest potential for strengthening ties with allies and building defense partnerships. The State Department hasn’t paid sufficient attention and the Pentagon has been either indifferent or hostile to the Treaty since Secretary of Defense Mattis left. Funding for two new planes equipped with digital sensors would have to be fast tracked. This is a bargain basement price for building back better.

We’re hard-wired to seek policy outcomes — hence our “to do” lists, like the one above. There are, however, two prerequisites for our favored policy outcomes. They are so elementary that we tend to overlook them. The Biden administration doesn’t have this luxury.

The first is articulating a convincing case for arms control — a case that weaves together related initiatives in easily understood and persuasive ways. Arms control has been unravelling since 2002 when George W. Bush walked away from the ABM Treaty and Vladimir Putin withdrew from START II and disregarded the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. The pace of unraveling quickened as NATO expanded — most notably by Putin’s disregard for the INF Treaty — and then gathered greater momentum when Trump was paired with Putin.

President Obama’s administration never made the case for arms control, perhaps because it seemed generally understood. Instead, Obama proposed ambitious initiatives, garnering the Nobel Peace Prize in the process. The pragmatist in him turned to other pressing matters after the grinding process of New START negotiation and ratification. Arms control barely figures in his memoir, A Promised Land.

Twelve years have passed since Obama spoke of his Prague agenda. If arms control is to be revived, the Biden administration can’t just attend to the particulars, as hard as they will be. Members of Team Biden have to explain why they are attending to the particulars. What does arms control mean at a time of intensified competition between four pairings of nuclear-armed rivals? What do we hope to accomplish, and why? Abolition is a visionary end state. Compellance hasn’t worked for North Korea or Iran. And deterrence is dangerous and prone to failure. So where does arms control fit in? And what types of arms control measures are best suited for the world we live in?

Arms control can accomplish what deterrence alone cannot. Deterrence is too dangerous to keep the nuclear peace. As Kenneth Boulding reminded us, “If deterrence were really stable… it would cease to deter. If the probability of nuclear weapons going off were zero, they would not deter anybody.” Most strengthening measures for nuclear deterrence make threats more credible, and therefore more dangerous. Deterrence needs reassurance in the form of arms control to help keep the nuclear peace.

We need both arms control and deterrence to prevent mushroom clouds, erect guardrails, establish stabilization measures, reduce numbers, and reaffirm nonproliferation. This case has to be made; it can no longer be assumed because it has been widely forgotten.

The second prerequisite for success is woman and manpower. The State Department has suffered a great exodus of talent, experience and energy. A large coterie of new hires is needed to help with immediate problems. New hires will pay dividends in our field for decades to come — whether or not they decide to make the State Department a career.

Presidents Clinton and Obama initially enjoyed Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill but didn’t attend to replenishing the ranks of arms controllers. The new leadership at the State Department and Congressional authorizers and appropriators can write a different script. Absent legislative authorization and funding for new staffing positions dealing with arms control and nonproliferation, the State Department will continue to hobble along, even with strong leadership.  

This is a daunting agenda. As if this weren’t enough, there’s also the matter of the State Department weighing in on U.S. nuclear doctrine. The language used to characterize the circumstances surrounding possible use of nuclear weapons in warfare matters. The options for doing so will be discussed in my next post.

Pin It on Pinterest