Who Killed Arms Control?


Image: Natalie Wu

By Scott Strgacich

The global nonproliferation architecture has had a horrible, no good, very bad year. In May, President Trump announced the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the “Iran Nuclear Deal” – scuppering the only realistic (and demonstrably effective) route toward ensuring a nonnuclear Iran that does not involve the use of force. Then again on October 20, the President announced his intention to extricate the country from the landmark Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty negotiated by the US and the USSR in 1987. This latest development sent shockwaves throughout the arms control community, outdoing Trump’s May announcement in recklessness and injuriousness. Therefore, it serves us well to add to the INF Treaty’s epitaph a brief synopsis of how it died and what comes after.

The INF Treaty has been under increasing critical scrutiny for several years now, going back at least to the Obama era, but the treaty’s very inception was itself a point of contention and foretold of a growing disdain for arms control by many on the neoconservative national security acropolis.

Predictably, President Ronald Reagan’s first meeting with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 impelled the likes of Congressman Newt Gingrich and others to cry “weakness” and invoke the memory of the 1938 Munich Agreement with Nazi Germany, a symptom of what I like to term America’s “Munich Syndrome” – that is the chronic impulse to understand any agreement with the nation’s adversaries as tantamount to a unilateral, unmitigated concession to tyranny. It’s an unfortunate malady.

Despite the misgivings of his party’s most ardent Cold Warriors, Reagan went on to meet Gorbachev in 1986 at Reykjavik and ultimately hosted him at the White House to sign the INF Treaty the following year.

The treaty was foundational event in the history of nonproliferation. Never before – and indeed never since – had a bilateral agreement achieved what the INF Treaty had: the elimination of an entire class of nuclear weapons. Until the breakthrough in 1987, Cold War Europe was menaced by the strategic standoff posed by the two superpowers’ intermediate range weapons (weapons with ranges of between 500 km and 5,500 km) which could accurately strike anywhere on the continent. Tensions over the deployment of Soviet SS-20 and American Pershing II missile systems dominated the interstate dialogue during most of Reagan’s presidency. Gorbachev’s accession to the Soviet premiership in 1985 offered a previously unapproachable avenue toward bilateral compromise to save Europe and end the Cold War. The INF Treaty provided the capstone to these efforts. The treaty banned the two powers from possessing any ground-launched nuclear and conventional weapons of intermediate range, ultimately leading to the destruction of 2,700 missiles and their launchers. It was the greatest triumph in the history of arms control, laying the foundation for a world in which nuclear weapons were, for the first time since their creation, not foremost on the minds of the world’s people.

Those days, it seems, are fast approaching their end. The United States has unilaterally pulled out of the groundbreaking accord Reagan and Gorbachev worked so hard to seal.

The origins of the INF Treaty’s demise, at face value, stem from long-held US concerns about the deployment of the Russian Novator 9M729 system, also known as SSC-8, a derivative of the Soviet RK-55 which never saw active service due to the implementation of the 1987 treaty. This missile is reported to have an effective range of anywhere between 300 km and 3,500 km, the higher end this spectrum clearly putting it outside the bounds treaty compliance. Though the Kremlin has delivered frequent protestations of American skepticism and has never pleaded anything but innocence, it seems likely that the 9M729, to some degree, exceeds the strictures of the treaty. On the other hand, Russian suspicions about the deployment of Aegis Ashore launchers in Poland this year have largely fallen flat, joint inspections proving that they held SM-3 interceptors, not the cruise missiles that Moscow had claimed would be in violation of the INF. Unilateral transparency is no way to run arms control and President Putin must absolutely bear significant blame for the treaty’s demise.

Additionally, the White House has cited the fact that China is not party to the treaty as a contention justifying the withdrawal. With the PRC’s ballistic missile inventory growing in numbers and sophistication, this is also not an unreasonable critique of the INF Treaty in its present form.

But there is something much deeper, much more insidious, behind America’s withdrawal. Responsible for Trump’s decision is a dogma, not a strategy. This dogma extols the virtues of American military power as an end in itself. Indeed, power and virtue are synonymous, inseparable. This dogma asserts that America is only truly sovereign when that power is employed to its greatest possibly potential, regardless of any serious risk assessment or strategic utility. This dogma’s chief apostle is National Security Advisor John Bolton.

John Bolton can best be described as one of America’s most zealous primacists. For him, the world is only ever well-ordered when it is within reach of arbitrary American power. Imbedded in his philosophy is an innate distrust of multilateralism and, as the Trump’s administration’s exit from the INF conveys, bilateralism. Bolton’s belief in American sovereignty as inextricable from its ability to project power unilaterally has never ceased to be his strategic mantra. The dissolution of the INF Treaty in particular has been among Bolton’s pet projects for years. As put by Miles Pomper of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, “This is something John Bolton has been thinking about for a long time because Bolton and like-minded officials don’t like such treaties to begin with, so they are more than pleased that the Russians and Trump have handed them the opportunity to dismantle them.”

It is abundantly clear that Bolton’s drive to deal death to the INF is not a calculated response to today’s geostrategic zeitgeist but rather was preordained; a fait accompli. No evidentiary observation, no change in the global climate, could have ever diverted Bolton from his holy task. This was Bolton’s crusade and primacy his religion.

Clearly, compliance with the INF was compromised. That is beyond dispute. So, why was the decision to withdrawal the wrong one?

The present is a delicate yet potentially fortuitous time for arms control. As Bolton and his merry band of skeptics attempt to tear down the old house without blueprints for the new, the international nonproliferation climate has reached a pivotal inflection point, the navigation of which may determine how safe our world will be in the decades to come. With the Cold War long over and the bipolarity of that conflict’s two nuclear hegemons a seemingly distant memory, now is a propitious time to pursue a new era of arms control. Instead, a new arms race seems to be in the offing and despite the increasingly bellicose magniloquence from all quarters, concern about this new state of affairs is universally felt if not expressed.

Whether we like it or not, nonproliferation only prospers when the US leads the way. However, arms control is on thin ice thanks in large part to a blatant American disinterest in its pursuit and it is this disinterest that disincentives compliance to arms control’s written accords and unwritten norms. Spirit and letter alike are getting the bird from the White House and the Kremlin both.

So, what should have been done instead? What was the alternative to withdrawal?

Other than tearing up the INF Treaty in a fit of righteous exasperation as the Trump administration has elected to do, some more fruitful options were open the President that may have not only saved the treaty but strengthened it. The administration should have made the deployment of US missile defense systems, such as the aforementioned Aegis Ashore, contingent on the destruction of noncompliant systems in the Russian arsenal, specifically the 9M729. This would be no fool’s errand either. The amplification of Russian rhetoric in response to Trump’s October 20 announcement underscores a consistent Russian fear of new US missile batteries being deployed on the European continent. America’s rejection of the INF Treaty demolishes all leverage that it may have possessed and hands Russia an even greater imperative act as a strategic counterweight. Early this year, for example, the Kremlin finally made good on a years-old threat to deploy Iskander M tactical missiles to the Kaliningrad exclave. Recent developments make a drawdown of such provocations less likely and ratchet up already enflamed tensions.

When it comes to China and the wider world, post-INF prospects for arms control looks just as bleak. What incentive does an increasingly unilateral Xi Jinping have to enter into a nonproliferation framework with a President who has now torn up two arms control agreements in the space of a year? Very little, in fact. This is obvious. But the trustworthiness of President Trump likely takes a back seat to growing tensions on the Indian subcontinent. The impending deployment of India’s new Agni-V ICBM at the end of this year gives Beijing greater reason to remain outside the global nonproliferation scheme and with a disinterested US, the prospects for such an accord are slimmer than ever. Additionally, no serious attempt was ever made by the Trump administration to bring Beijing into the fold. Only tweets and tariffs came Xi’s way. Arms control in earnest was never on the table. In this, too, Trump’s protestations ring hollow.  

The US also must get its own house in order before it takes to lecturing other states about their respective arsenals. Presently, the Pentagon is in the process of implementing a massive 30-year plan to modernize America’s nuclear forces to the tune of about $1 trillion. But, as James E. Doyle of the International Institute for Strategic Studies indicates in his latest book, this plan is inefficient and may cause more harm than good. The Pentagon’s plan, as it currently stands, aims to essentially replicate the America’s Cold War nuclear posture, retaining force levels and structures that are wholly unnecessary to achieve effective deterrence and counterstrike potential. Instead, Doyle recommends three alternative force configurations, all with reduced levels and two of which completely eliminate the ground-based component of the nuclear triad. Radical? Not as much as one would think. As Doyle conveys through extensive research, all three configurations are more cost-effective than the current plan and better meet America’s deterrence needs as defined by the most recent Nuclear Posture Reviews (NPR).

The Pentagon’s plan, Doyle argues, will also incentivize other nuclear powers to structure their forces accordingly, amplifying their countervalue and counterforce potentials. America’s nuclear arsenal is not structured in a vacuum. It sends smoke signals to the Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi, Pyongyang and beyond. Until the US is better able to target its own needs, the future nonproliferation remains tenuous.

So, who – or what – killed arms control? Misguided dogmas, monolithic defense institutions, apathy. This is clear. The real question remains: can it be revived? The US holds the defibrillator. The road before us is forked. We must tread carefully.

Scott is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley where he studied political science with an emphasis on international relations. He was the founder of the Berkeley chapter of the John Quincy Adams Society and received highest departmental honors for his thesis Tehran’s Pragmatism: Iranian Strategic Culture After the Nuclear Deal. He is interested in national security policy, arms control and Iranian affairs. He also has a weird thing for Egyptology.






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