Michael KreponAccelerating Descent

Arms control has boom-and-bust cycles. We’re now going through very tough times. They remind me of the Carter administration. As Yogi Berra has said, it feels like déjà vu all over again – only Obama’s challenges are more severe. This time, instead of a sclerotic Kremlin leadership bungling into Afghanistan – the graveyard of great power follies – Obama faces a brazen Kremlin leader who seeks to upend the post-Cold War order on NATO’s doorstep.

In tough times, it’s good to remember this timeline: eight years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty. I don’t expect another reversal of this magnitude in my lifetime, but I do expect U.S.-Russian relations to stabilize eventually. The challenge now is to respond effectively to adversity, to reassure friends and allies, to minimize losses, and to position ourselves for future gains.

President Carter was as committed to reducing nuclear dangers as President Obama. In both cases, their ambitions were whittled down by domestic constraints and a deteriorating international environment. In my view, Carter was more ambitious than Obama. This is what he said about a world without nuclear weapons in his inaugural address:

The world is still engaged in a massive armaments race designed to ensure continuing equivalent strength among potential adversaries. We pledge perseverance and wisdom in our efforts to limit the world’s armaments to those necessary for each nation’s own domestic safety. And we will move this year a step toward our ultimate goal–the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this Earth. We urge all other people to join us, for success can mean life instead of death.

Carter tried to cap the strategic arms race, sought to negotiate a comprehensive test ban and pursued arms control in space. Obama has offered only passing references to ratifying the CTBT and contracted out an international code of conduct for space to the European Union.

Obama spoke eloquently about a world without nuclear weapons in Prague, with the appropriate caveats. He then focused on securing a verifiable regime for deeper strategic arms reductions. Carter convinced the Senate to consent to the ratification of the Panama Canal treaties and was then stymied on SALT II. Obama managed ratification of New START, after which he was caught between the rock of Vladimir Putin and the hard place of Senate Republicans.

Both Presidents were confronted with the Kremlin’s use of force across international borders. Carter began the program of covert assistance to the “mujahedeen,” which was ramped up considerably during the Reagan administration. Obama is now contemplating what more is needed to help the Government of Ukraine.

Obama’s strategic instincts are to clean up inherited messes, to not swing for the fences in complex circumstances, to settle for singles and doubles, and above all, to avoid stupid, costly mistakes. Obama’s caution abroad — with the exception of a risky decision to employ Special Forces in Pakistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden — is understandable after a presidency of painfully excessive reactions. But an excess of caution when negative events snowball turns virtue into liability. Obama is now faced with hard choices as his batting average drops.

According to William Manchester, President John F. Kennedy sent 400 Green Berets to South Vietnam after telling his inner circle, “We have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place.” Obama now has to decide how to make U.S. power credible in Ukraine and elsewhere around Russia’s periphery, as well as in the Middle East, without making a mistake like JFK’s.

Of those who now question Obama’s steel, the most important are Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Just as Nikita Khrushchev took the measure of JFK at Vienna in 1961 and discerned a President who could be pushed around, Putin seems to have concluded that the door is open to carving out a protectorate for Russian-speaking people, real and imagined, in southeastern Ukraine. In my view, Ukraine deserves more help than tougher sanctions to counter Putin’s moves. Xi Jinping will be watching this high-stakes contest to figure out his next steps in the South and East China seas. China, like Russia and the United States, is also ramping up its military capabilities in space.

Arms control always rides in the back seat of geopolitics. A strenuous response to Putin’s adventurism will have negative repercussions on arms control for the near term. The absence of a strenuous response will have negative repercussions over the long haul. Successful outcomes depend on cooperation among major powers and U.S. leadership which, in turn, depends on bipartisan support and a willingness to take risks. Leadership without followership leads nowhere; followership is coaxed by leveraging others to make stabilizing choices and dissuading them from dangerous ones. The Obama administration has not had the benefit of bipartisan support and hasn’t done well in leveraging desired outcomes.

Large geopolitical challenges are but the leading edge of systemic weaknesses in the nuclear order. U.S. leadership at the 2015 NPT Review Conference has been harmed because Senate Republicans, in their obduracy in all things hinting of arms control, have yet to confirm the U.S. Ambassador. Avoiding further damage depends on enough stakeholders having the wisdom not to rock a boat that is leaking. The process of strategic arms reduction will probably be stalled for longer than advocates care to admit, and the pursuit of abolition at a time when major powers are either at loggerheads or testing each other becomes surrealistic.

Other regional crucibles are heating up. The young leader of North Korea is ambitious and seems to be disregarding Beijing’s messages. A nuclear deal with Iran could be losing ground to patchwork fixes. The prelims are underway for another nuclear-tinged crisis on the subcontinent, even as Pakistan’s civilian government faces extraordinary challenges. Secretary of State John Kerry has his hands full and Obama is without persuasive emissaries to deal with new crises.

Under these circumstances, preserving as much as possible of the arms control infrastructure becomes a sound baseline strategy. I’ve written previously about moving forward with provisional application of the CTBT’s monitoring regime while awaiting entry into force. Time can be well spent trying to forge norms with China for responsible behavior in space and at sea. And as President Obama shores up Ukraine and reassures friends and allies, he would be wise to bring new firefighters aboard who have standing on both sides of the aisle.


  1. Arch Roberts (History)

    My nomination for a “new fire fighter:” Dick Lugar.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    “Just as Nikita Khrushchev took the measure of JFK at Vienna in 1961 and discerned a President who could be pushed around, Putin … southeastern Ukraine.”

    Khrushchev “saw” what he wanted to see, not what was really there. Kennedy turned out to be wilier than Khrushchev anticipated, and the risk of nuclear war was too close for comfort. We escaped alive, in part, because Kennedy refused the advice of aggressive military leaders.

    Similarly, Putin “sees” what he wants to see, but not because Obama is a pushover. The reality is Putin has the conventional advantage in Ukraine, but is trying very hard to pretend that Russian troops are not involved. Refusing to recognize this devious fait accompli as legitimate and organizing sanctions against it are smart long-term moves.

  3. Anjaan (History)

    A non-western non-NATO perspective of the Ukraine issue is … the NATO’s expansionist agenda has pushed Russia and Putin against the wall … what Putin is doing is in reaction to extreme provocations from the US and NATO … Russia is fighting for its rightful place in Europe, which has so far been denied by the Britain-US led conspiracy … after Gorbachev agreed to dismantle the USSR, his western counter part reneged on the promises to treat Russia with due respect … the world has seen the trashy way, post dismantling of USSR, in which Russia was treated until Putin turned Russia around … in case of the conflict snowballing into a larger and destructive war, the non-western world will lay the blame at the doorstep of Britain and the US …

    • Cameron (History)

      I’m always surprised to hear a resounding cry of “can we get into NATO yesterday” from former Warsaw Pact members as a Britain-US led conspiracy. The new NATO members joined largely because of the history of Russian occupation and colonization. There is a reason that there are such large Russian minorities for Putin to co-opt.

      As for “due respect” Russia gets and got due respect. It’s a great power, and if it doesn’t want the smaller states near it to band together, well the fault is not with it’s stars, but with itself.

      The non-western world will determine their own course depending on what offers them the best outcomes. You may lay the blame on Britain (really, the UK, why not Germany or France or Canada?) and the US.

  4. Ataune (History)

    What I don’t grasp looking at the US administration portraying the current crisis as a Russia-Ukraine issue is how this can benefit “arms control” at all. The reality, here to stay and witnessed by almost anyone is that the crisis is a US-Russia problem. It seems to me the only reason this is still marred in the obsolete political framework based on Russia challenging the figure of the US as the sole world leader and the US trying to portray the former as a subordinate regional power that need to stay behind in-line if she wants to be a full partner is the old habit of “Exceptionalism”. The reality is that we are way passed the unilateral world and the US political posture needs a serious makeup accordingly. Once and if this is done, the long-term hard chips of “arms control” will fall in place in a much smoother way and most likely in your lifetime.

  5. Fred Miller (History)

    Arms control’s cycles have some predictability. The “boom” part of the cycle comes following a boom in public concern and public pressure. The last such boom, the Nuclear Freeze movement of the 1980’s, showed that even a hawkish, conservative administration is not immune to the pressure of a large groundswell of public opinion and activism.

    In recent years, the citizen’s groups that are most focused on arms control are weak and flailing. They keep reworking campaigns that failed a decade ago, and struggle to maintain status quo.

    If they break out of their doldrums, or if new leadership (and perhaps new organizations) can recapture the public’s imagination, political will that is now absent will become a major force, weapons programs will lose funding, and treaties will be ratified.

    Arms control wonks tend to ignore the effect of public pressure. They do so at their own peril. It is the fuel that allows the machine to move.

  6. John Hallam (History)

    We need to re-emphasise the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons to humans as a species: What is required is not mere arms control useful and noble as that is, but actual abolition. And if we fail well then as Kennedy said, the nukes will one way or another abolish us.

  7. krepon (History)

    Here’s the blog post for moving forward on the CTBT:



  8. Jon (History)

    We should provide military hardware to Ukraine. We should accelerate the B61-12 and deploy 500 of them in more countries than we currently do. We should refuse to implement the New START Treaty until Russia removes all of its military forces from Ukraine including all of Crimea regardless of any lease of Sevastopol.

  9. GJ (History)

    I suppose the other question is how to preserve the gains of arms control – specifically, the numbers we’ve currently reached and those enshrined in New START – while rejecting pressure to expand the arsenal again.

    The moment that Russia is confirmed to be doing anything like a breakout, it’s back to 1991 levels and we’ll have to start the damn thing all over again some day.

    • Jon (History)

      I don’t think we need to increase the arsenal even if Russia deploys GLCMs or IRBMs or starts to build their arsenal up. I think we should hold where we are with deployed warheads and especially with delivery vehicles. But there is still room to cut the arsenal, mainly in the hedge stockpile. It would take a massive change in delivery vehicles on Russia’s end to require us to need more warheads, which is highly unlikely that Russia is capable of achieving this.