Michael KreponLeaving the Mothership

It’s not easy to leave the mothership, but artists sometimes flourish by venturing away from the familiar. George Harrison’s talent was constrained by the Beatles, who already had two musical geniuses as front men. Harrison’s crowning achievements came after the Beatles split up, topped, in my view, by “All Things Must Pass,” whose lyrics are way too profound to be confined to a broken romance. The same pattern holds for Jason Isbell, who was shown the door by the Drive-By Truckers. Lo and behold, Isbell is way deeper than the DBT’s two accomplished songwriters. I rest my case with “Relatively Easy.”

It’s harder to leave the mothership in politics than in the arts. Political parties cling to shibboleths long past their due dates. Posturing has always accompanied real lawmaking in American politics, but it’s hard to remember a time when there was so much posturing and so little legislating. Republicans on Capitol Hill make the “Do-Nothing Congress” that Harry Truman campaigned against seem hyperactive. Democrats had to figure out how to get past their loathing toward Richard Nixon to re-emerge as an appealing choice to voters. Republicans now face the same challenge with respect to Barack Obama and the Clintons.

Treaties are the mothership of arms controllers, affirming accomplishment and paving the way for next steps. Treaties have helped curtail nuclear proliferation, build down Cold War legacy arsenals, establish monitoring regimes, and nearly abolish chemical and biological weapons. One measure of these accomplishments is the extent to which they enable us to focus on outliers: Without the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Chemical Weapons Convention, and Biological Weapons Convention, there would be no outliers.

These treaties now have almost universal adherence. They matter greatly even when instruments of enforcement are left to the UN Security Council (NPT), challenge inspections are not invoked (CWC), or when, in the case of the BWC, there are no monitoring provisions whatsoever.

The Senate consented to ratify these treaties in large measure because they imposed restraints on others, not the United States. When the shoe was on the other foot, and constraints fell directly on US strategic programs, the Senate’s consent became far more challenging.

Strategic arms control and reduction treaties were enabled and undercut by deal-making. The practice of securing 67 votes in return for modernizing delivery vehicles and infrastructure began with the Limited Test Ban Treaty. One of the promises made for the LTBT – maintaining readiness to resume atmospheric testing – wasn’t kept. Likewise, not all of the promises made along with the Senate’s consent to ratify New START were kept: nuclear weapon programs are not immune from budget austerity.

Arms controllers now complain that the price of ratification has become way too high. Nuclear deterrence boosters complain about broken promises — especially the promise to build an over-sized facility at Los Alamos for a five-fold increase in plutonium pit production — and how multi-year appropriations can’t be locked down. Deal-making has lost favor.

Besides, no treaty ratification fights are in the offing anytime soon. The Obama administration doesn’t have the stomach or the votes to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The question on the distant horizon is whether we can learn to live without the entry into force of the next strategic arms reduction treaty.

There’s no need to make decisions in the near term. New START doesn’t expire until 2021, with the possibility of a five year extension. Treaty critics will try to require two-thirds consent to any reductions below New START limits, making the Senate’s consent conditional on a raft of spending commitments. Even then, ratification would be iffy.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan put the last nail in the coffin of SALT II ratification. Fast forward to Vladimir Putin. Relations between Washington and Moscow were rocky even before the contest for Ukraine’s future began to play out. It will now take a long time for bilateral relations to get back on track.

Leaving the treaty mothership will be very hard for arms controllers. But the CTBT’s norm against nuclear testing grows stronger with every passing year, and tight Pentagon budgets will result in deeper nuclear force reductions, whether or not there are new treaties. Arms controllers, in other words, don’t need to be supplicants whenever the time comes for future deal making.

Modest reductions are worthy of modest inducements, and no more. But deterrence boosters will demand everything but the kitchen sink, and arms controllers will find it hard to walk away from a deal. Without structure and intrusive monitoring, the “arms control enterprise” will wither alongside the “nuclear enterprise.” Very deep reductions, assuming they can be negotiated over the long haul, are inconceivable unless backed up by treaty-based monitoring.

Ukraine clarifies the obvious – that deal making in return for treaty ratification is an increasingly distant prospect. The longer the standoff between supporters of treaties and nuclear deterrence continues, the more both camps can expect lean years ahead. This impasse doesn’t play well abroad, either. It’s a recipe for trouble when partisans on Capitol Hill alternately deride treaties and nuclear weapons as relics of the Cold War, while friends and potential foes view them as essential.


  1. Gregory Matteson (History)

    With Russia going back in the penalty box (to mix a metaphor) I’d think the question is how much things will unravel. It looks like no one will be able to afford another nuclear arms race, but most people see standing nuclear forces as quite sufficient threat; we won’t need Michael Rennie to intervene.

    I see no return to the polarization of the Cold War; but maybe the Son of the Cold War. There is still a large residue of Cold War antagonism here, so we will hear a lot of “I told you so”, but with Russia driven by Chauvinism rather than a coherent body of ideology, and already rather broadly re-integrated into Global institutions, regional, ethnic, and nationalist conflicts will be the drivers.

    The partisans on Capitol Hill will have to form new frameworks yet unforseeable, or become irrelevant to their respective constituents.

  2. Daryl Kimball (History)


    I have to take issue with the main thesis of your essay, which is that “All Things Must Pass” was George Harrison’s best work. That may be the best post-Beatles album of any of the four, but his best stuff was from the late Beatles era (“Something,” “My Guitar,” “Here Comes …”)

    As for the arms control bit, a couple of quibbles from this particular arms controller. I agree that formal treaties are valuable for the reasons you mention (and a few others), but many of us have left the “mothership” before and are willing to do it again to achieve risk reduction and elimination — and not simply because the “price” of treaty ratification has gotten too high or because the quality of the discourse in the Senate is so pathetic.

    When it comes to further nuclear reductions within the next decade or so, new treaties are not necessary when the existing treaty (New START) provides a good monitoring and verification regime and when the United States has determined that it does not need to continue to deploy 1,550 strategic warheads to meet nuclear deterrence requirements, nor does Russia for that matter.

    As the SecState’s International Security Advisory Board recommended in Nov. 2012, both sides need not wait for the negotiation of a New START follow-on pact (which was not in the cards before the Ukraine crisis and would be even further off now). They can, however, accelerate the pace of their planned reductions and jointly make further cuts, with the added benefit that they can both reduce the obscene cost of recapitalizing their Cold War-era nuclear weapons delivery systems.

    In the longer term, further U.S.-Russian reductions will likely require that the world’s other nuclear armed states agree not to build up, so long as the U.S. and Russia build down.

    Among other things, this requires political will by key leaders (big changes always do) and more creative U.S. diplomacy, but not necessarily the negotiation of new treaties and certainly not spending more taxpayer money to maintain more nuclear weapons and more nuclear weapons infrastructure than is necessary.

  3. krepon (History)

    We have yet to consider the repercussions of Ukraine on President Obama’s most daring and important diplomatic initiative: reaching a satisfactory nuclear settlement with Iran. It’s hard to see an upside here.

    Obama is greatly exposed, and he has surrounded himself with a national security team that cannot displace the weight that falls on his shoulders from chaotic circumstances abroad. Feckless public pronouncements don’t help.

    Like Jimmy Carter after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Obama will now have to move beyond vagueries to adopt steps with diplomatic and economic consequences.


    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      I fail to see how Obama and Carter’s dilemmas differs from Eisenhower in 1956 or Johnson in 1968; and for fecless pronouncements we only have to look as far back as the previous administration on nuclear North Korea. There have always been limits on our power short of starting WWIII.

      I do, however see one unintended consequence of Putin’s venture; possibly an upside, that may change everyone’s calculations. Whether or not we are the ‘only superpower’, Obama, or any other President, doesn’t operate in a vacuum. EU leaders have been handed a unifier’s dream: an imminent external threat.

    • krepon (History)

      A statement attributed to an unnamed high-ranking official in the Russian Defense Ministry was carried by Russia’s Interfax news agency Saturday.

      Saturday’s Washington Post:

      MOSCOW —Russia’s defense ministry is considering freezing American inspections of its strategic weapons arsenal in response to Washington’s decision to authorize sanctions and halt military cooperation with Russia over its military takeover in Crimea, according to news reports Saturday.

      The military inspections take place as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) between Russia and the United States that involves cutting the nuclear arsenal of both countries.

      “As the inspections are a measure of trust and the U.S. has effectively declared sanctions, regular bilateral contact in accordance with the treaties is impossible,” the Defense Ministry official told Interfax.

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    The Pentagon’s proposed budget for fiscal 2015 would provide funding to redesign a key part of the nation’s missile-defense program.
    The Defense Department’s spending plan released on March 4 requests more than $1 billion for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) System made by Chicago-based Boeing Co.
    The system maintains a fleet of 30 rocket-like interceptors in underground silos at the Army’s Fort Greely, Alaska, and the Air Force’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., to knock down incoming threats such as nuclear missiles.
    The research and development funding would be used to expand the fleet of interceptors to 44, including 40 at Greely and four at Vandenberg, and to redevelop the so-called kill vehicle that sits atop the interceptor and destroys a projectile on impact, among other initiatives, according to the budget overview.
    Specifically, the Pentagon recommended “redesign of the GMD exo-atmospheric kill vehicle for improved reliability, availability, performance, and productivity,” the document states

    Read more: http://defensetech.org/2014/03/06/pentagon-to-redesign-missile-kill-vehicle/#ixzz2vLNn1KVW

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      Back in the era of Star Wars I ran across a Soviet book; Weaponry in Space: The Dilemma of Security. Very instructive of the reasoning behind Soviet investment in the Space Treaties and the ABM Treaty.

      We need to keep in mind that, whether believing in their sincerity or rationality, the Russians continue to advance arguments similar to what I found in that book. So far their response, at least in public theater, to foreward basing and continued deployment, veers into the paranoid and hysterical.

  5. Bradley Laing (History)


    By Dennis Lynch
    on March 08 2014 3:57 PM

    It’s incredibly sophisticated nature suggest to experts that it was developed not by cybercriminals, but by a state agency.

    It’s likened in complexity to the Stuxnet malware used to sabotage a number of Iranian nuclear centrifuges, which is saying a lot. G Data calls it “one of the most advanced rootkits (G Data) has ever analyzed