Michael KreponGo Big or Go Home?

Quotes of the week:

“Where there is no vision, there is no hope.” — George Washington Carver

“The enlightened ruler is heedful, and the good general full of caution.” — Sun Tzu

The June 16th meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin has generated the expected raft of “shoulds” and “musts.” There is a strange convergence on one agenda item. Both ardent supporters and skeptics of arms control are taking the position that Biden should and must pursue a very ambitious agenda.

The case for going big is painfully obvious. Nuclear dangers are growing as four pairings of nuclear armed rivals are updating war plans. Diplomacy is in the doldrums and is in need of ennervation. Dangerous military practices are on the rise. Technologies with military applications are advancing. Treaties have withered and died. The precepts of nuclear deterrence don’t correlate to new forms of risk taking.

Arms control advocates aren’t the only ones sounding the tocsin for ambitious undertakings. Skeptics of arms control also want to go big and bold. During the Trump administration, which withdrew from four arms control agreements, they called for bringing China and including tactical nuclear weapons into whatever deals might be struck. Rather than pursue additional reductions, they called for counting every last warhead.

Ambition, whether real or feigned, is as old as the enterprise of nuclear disarmament and arms control. The Acheson-Lilienthal plan for abolition was conceived when Josef Stalin was hell bent to acquire the Bomb and when an iron curtain was descending upon Europe.

Once the pursuit of disarmament gave way to arms control, those who were most skeptical of the negotiating process argued that limited measures were either insufficient or a ruse, and that any agreement that Moscow was willing to sign was, by definition, a bad deal. Only the deals that Moscow would summarily reject were good deals.

When arms control shifted to arms reductions, the same arguments played out. Cynics who drafted the Reagan administration’s initial negotiating proposals demanded outcomes that they believed were beyond reach. It just so happened that the lengthy pursuit of unachievable negotiating outcomes would permit the deployment of military capabilities the Kremlin was most opposed to. Then, when the Soviet Union began to dissolve under Mikhail Gorbachev, the impossible became improbable.

Arms control has always been improbably ambitious. John F. Kennedy wanted a Comprehensive Test Ban. Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama talked openly about a world without nuclear weapons while seeking deep cuts.

Usually, ambition concedes to ground realities. Only when political and geopolitical conditions permitted did national leaders produce unexpected successes and previously inconceivable outcomes. While Kennedy failed to negotiate a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing, he got the ball rolling with the very first nuclear arms control treaty. Lyndon Baines Johnson, not known for his arms control accomplishments, oversaw the completion of the Nonproliferation and Outer Space Treaties. Richard Nixon agreed to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Most stunning of all, Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev removed several rungs on escalation ladders by eliminating intermediate- and lower range land-based missiles. Then George H.W. Bush worked with Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to cut deeply into strategic force levels.

Can Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin add their names to this list? Let’s recall the conditions that resulted in these uncommon successes:

• A chastening close call with Armageddon (the Limited Test Ban Treaty)
• Washington’s decision not to arm West Germany with nuclear weapons and Moscow’s concern about a nuclear-armed China (the Nonproliferation Treaty)
• Despite the space race, a common interest in stopping one dangerous area of competition that had yet to begin (the Outer Space Treaty)
• Strenuous domestic opposition in the United States paired with Soviet anxiety of U.S. technological advances (the ABM Treaty)
• NATO’s agreement to begin missile deployments posing a severe threat to Moscow (the INF Treaty)
• The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact followed by the cratering of the Russian economy (strategic arms reduction treaties)

To be sure, other factors contributed to these outstanding achievements, as nothing with respect to arms control is mono-causal. But it’s fair to argue that none of these significant achievements would have occurred without the factors I’ve highlighted.

How many of these factors are now present in dealings between Washington and Moscow or between Washington and Beijing? If they are all missing, on what basis might it be possible to negotiate ambitious agreements?

To believe that momentous arms control achievements are possible in the absence of conditions that have led to success in the past is to believe in the transformative powers of arms control. In this realm of thinking, arms control can create the political and geopolitical conditions for success, rather than the other way around.

But this puts the cart before the horse. Outstanding successes in arms control have happened as a result of favorable domestic political and geopolitical conditions, not in spite of them.

Cynics that promote ambitious negotiating outcomes when domestic political divides are deepening and when geopolitical conditions are fraught have no expectation of success. They are engaged in diversionary tactics while laying the predicate to critique whatever modest steps might be achieved.

It would be unwise for the Biden administration to seek agreements that are more ambitious than any negotiated previously as relations with Moscow and Beijing deteriorate.

Vision matters, and laying the groundwork for new construction takes time. Exploratory discussions can be worthwhile, but not if  this becomes a diversion from seeking near-term success in reducing nuclear danger and excess.

Framing this right is harder than it seems. Presidents Carter and Obama failed at this. They got tripped up by their lofty ambitions. Their accomplishments paled in comparison and were easily characterized as retreats by ardent critics.

Joe Biden watched this happen at close range. He, too, could fall into this trap.


  1. Debra Decker (History)

    Michael – Great piece as always. Now I want the follow-on to this! I couldn’t get Russia and the US together on what I had hoped was a much easier exchange – of art! – with Ken Feinberg and Stu Eizenstat offering to mediate pro bono. Where/how should the “let’s talk” start? Thank you for sharing any suggestions!

  2. Michael Krepon (History)

    Thank you for commenting. Art and film exchanges could be icebreakers. But these steps would need to be accompanied, in my view, with serious and substantive discussions on security concerns. Washington and Moscow have signed agreements to prevent dangerous military practices on the ground, sea and air. These could be rehabilitated. But at the same time, Biden is obliged to keep the heat on with respect to Ukraine and hacking and other agenda items. A very difficult balancing act.
    Best wishes,

  3. Michael Krepon (History)

    postscript: Biden didn’t fall into this trap.

Pin It on Pinterest