Michael KreponKilling the ABM Treaty: A Retrospective

Quote of the week:

“Most of what we call civilization depends on reciprocal vulnerability.” — Thomas Schelling

Note to readers: Here’s a taste of my forthcoming book, ‘Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control.’

George W. Bush is an admirable human being in many ways. He is deeply centered, a man of honor, faith, and constancy. As President, he tried to do his best in extremely trying circumstances, but he will be remembered most for a calamity that occurred on his watch followed by a succession of poor decisions. In retirement, he has taken up painting as a hobby. A private man, he lets his subjects on canvas speak on his behalf. 

Bush’s responses to the 9/11 attacks were misguided, disproportionate, and punishing. The United States has little to show for the blood and treasure lost by waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His economic philosophy and policies didn’t anticipate or foreclose the Great Recession of 2008. Relations with Russia that began on a positive note turned quite negative, especially after NATO’s rapid expansion, followed by Bush’s stated intention to bring Georgia and Ukraine into the fold. 

To this list we must add Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a decision that effectively foreclosed far deeper reductions in strategic offensive forces. When discounting for generous counting rules, U.S. and Russian deployed warhead totals haven’t diminished greatly since the time Bush left office. Nor has the ostensible purpose of Bush’s treaty withdrawal been achieved: Two decades later, the United States still has not begun to field effective national defenses against ballistic missile attack.

To those who continue to assert that success is just around the corner, the advance of hypervelocity/glide vehicle technology provides additional rebuttal. Russian and Chinese missiles will get through, no matter how much the Congress spends on missile defenses. The interceptors that show the most promise against the far lesser threat from North Korea are upgrades of theater missile defenses that date back to the Clinton administration. These upgrades could have been permitted under the ABM Treaty had Bush chosen to amend rather than discard it. He, unlike Clinton, had the leverage to do so in negotiations with both Vladimir Putin and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

In my dreams. Bush was convinced of the need to be rid of the ABM Treaty even before taking office. His supremely confident advisers — the self-described Vulcans — cheered him on. None of Bush’s Cabinet officers tried to change his mind. (Sound familiar?) Only one — Secretary of State Colin Powell — tried to slow roll him. The incoming Bush administration projected the unipolar moment‘s swagger. A sense of humility would come later, at least to some.

At the time of its death, the ABM Treaty was thirty years old. Its birth came reluctantly to President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, midwifed by Congressional opposition to ABM deployments to protect American cities and the Pentagon’s lukewarm support for ineffective weapon systems that would rob funding from those that worked.

The 1972 ABM Treaty garnered all but two votes in the Senate. It was a great victory for supporters of arms control. One Founding Father, Thomas Schelling, called the ABM Treaty “a remarkable story of intellectual achievement transformed into policy.” The Treaty reflected two of of arms control’s central tenets. One was the imperative to stabilize the strategic arms competition. The second was the necessity to complement deterrence with reassurance. The ABM Treaty backstopped what Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev later articulated — that a nuclear war must not be fought and could not be won. 

The letdown after the ABM Treaty came quickly, as limits on defenses were insufficient to stabilize the strategic competition. In order to do so, the Treaty needed to be accompanied by hard constraints on offensive capabilities. But this was far more than the traffic could bare in 1972. The companion agreement signed by Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev limiting strategic offenses — the SALT I “Interim Agreement” — was an important first step, but one that ratcheted up the competition.

The Interim Agreement was purposefully porous. This was the price exacted by those most skeptical of détente and strategic arms control in both countries. New offensive technologies were in the offing, technologies to place more than one warhead atop individual missiles and to allow warheads launched from half a world away to reach their targets with far greater accuracy. Powerful constituencies in both countries wanted these capabilities, so the Interim Agreement accommodated them. Driven by the deployments of MIRVed missiles, warheads carried by strategic forces rose precipitously despite the ABM Treaty.

The resulting arms race made the Treaty no less valuable but painted a bullseye on the backs of its supporters. The more superpower arsenals grew, the more they seemed to mock the ABM Treaty – and yet the more necessary the Treaty became to clarify the costs of crossing the nuclear threshold. 

By the time of the Reagan administration, Schelling believed that the strategic arms control process had gone badly awry, becoming a numbers game. Because arms control had become a numbers game and because harsh critics didn’t trust the process, treaties became hundreds of pages long with dense paragraphs of fine print. The more complex the treaties became, the longer it took to negotiate them and the easier it was for critics that opposed lower numbers to take aim. Writing just before Reagan’s breakthroughs with Gorbachev, Schelling was disheartened by the domestic political payoffs that accompanied treaty-making.

Schelling’s morose conclusion was premature, just as the other obituaries for arms control have been premature. Reagan and Gorbachev broke the back of the strategic arms competition. With the end of the Cold War, the ABM Treaty fulfilled its larger purpose, enabling deep cuts while reinforcing stabilization, just as the conceptualizers of arms control had hoped.

More crowning achievements for arms control came during the George H.W. Bush administration than in any other. Just before leaving office, Bush finalized a second strategic arms reduction treaty with a compliant Boris Yeltsin. START II further reduced strategic offenses and eliminated the primary source of instability – land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads. The Secretary of Defense who approved of this remarkable feat was Dick Cheney.

In one of the great ironies of arms control, deterrence strategists led by Bush 41 employed the precepts of arms control to accomplish what arms controllers couldn’t hope to achieve by themselves. As long as Washington and Moscow accepted national vulnerability, refrained from deploying land-based missiles carrying many warheads, and maintained positive relations, nuclear excess could be significantly and steadily downsized.

Alas, the ironies of arms control work both ways: Just as it sometimes seems darkest before the dawn, success can contain the seeds of failure, as was the case with the Interim Agreement. START II, George H.W. Bush’s most stunning achievement in this field, never came into effect.

The Russian Duma resisted ratification of START II until Putin replaced Yeltsin in 2000. Anticipating George W. Bush’s inclination to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, Putin convinced the Duma to ratify START II with the proviso that if Bush pulled the plug on the AMB Treaty, Russia would withdraw from START II.

And that is precisely what happened in June 2002. Both exits had cascade effects. Putin embarked on production and deployment of MIRVed land-based missiles in the most destabilizing way, by placing heavy, “use or lose” liquid-fueled missiles in silos. He also embarked on several other insurance policies against a prospective U.S. national ballistic missile defense system, some of them daft. Putin also walked away from treaty constraints on conventional forces that reflected Moscow’s loss of empire and that impaired his freedom of action around Russia’s periphery.

In due course, after the Russia economy rebounded and after Bush announced his fateful intention to include Georgia and Ukraine in plans for NATO expansion, Putin authorized the flight testing of a missile clearly prohibited by the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, another jewel in the crown of arms control. These flight tests reflected a military requirement that Gorbachev quashed and that Putin endorsed, waiving off the Obama administration’s complaints as perhaps 100 of the prohibited missiles were deployed. The Trump administration rightly withdrew from the INF Treaty in 2019.

Two decades after Bush’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the arms control enterprise is in poor shape. Indications of its demise preceded Bush’s decisions and accelerated markedly afterward. While the presumed benefits of Bush’s decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty haven’t materialized, the costs continue to mount — including the costs incurred by not negotiating far deeper cuts in strategic offensive forces.

Getting the arms control enterprise back on track will require a major re-think. It will also require a re-evaluation of the feasibility and cost effectiveness of different missile defense architectures. Effective national missile defenses against major powers are no more achievable today than they were in decades past. The acceptance of this reality could enable the revival of arms control. Limits on national missile defenses are unlikely to be codified by a new treaty, but then again, treaties have limited lifespans.