Donald Trump and his national security team have weakened virtually every aspect of American foreign policy over the past two years. U.S. bilateral relations with both Russia and China have worsened, driving Moscow and Beijing into their closest relationship in more than fifty years. U.S. standing in Europe, particularly with our central NATO allies, has been compromised as President Trump has embarrassed key allies in London, Paris, and Berlin. The recent bungling of political upheaval in Venezuela has made the United States a laughing stock throughout South America. Trump’s obsequious behavior toward Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu has alarmed the Arab states and made the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement even more remote.
The current imbroglio with Iran, which began with the decertification of the Iran nuclear accord, is a result of the combined bungling of Trump, his national security adviser, and his secretary of state. There is no process or policy involved in this diplomatic disarray; instead, we are witnessing a series of personal actions devoid of any consultative or substantive process. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton are on record as favoring regime change and the use of force against Iran; there is no way of determining what Donald Trump actually wants.
There is one element in this mosaic of disarray, however, that stands out and could have serious long-term repercussions. And that is the total ignorance and inexperience of Trump and his key advisers in the area of arms control and disarmament. During a presidential debate in 2016, Trump demonstrated that he had no understanding of the nuclear triad; as president he has manifested similar ignorance of nuclear verification and typically claimed that “it would take me an hour and a half to learn everything there is to know about missiles. I think I know most of it anyway,” he added.
Virtually every American presidential administration in the nuclear era has understood the importance of limiting nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon states. In the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy insisted that the Pentagon support the Partial Test Ban Treaty. President Lyndon B. Johnson worked with the Soviet Union to gain support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty. President Richard Nixon engaged the Soviets to garner the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). President Jimmy Carter negotiated SALT II, although the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 prevented congressional ratification of the treaty. Nevertheless, Washington and Moscow observed all facets of the agreement.
President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars illusions blocked the opportunity for significant reductions in strategic nuclear weaponry, but Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev managed to abolish an entire class of medium-range nuclear missiles with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 1987. Reagan ignored the opposition of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in doing so. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton continued the nuclear dialogue with Russia in the 1990s, and President Barack Obama negotiated the New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START) in 2011, which made significant reductions in the nuclear inventories of the United States and Russia. In order to gain Senate ratification of START, however, Obama accepted the demands of Republican neoconservatives who demanded $1.7 trillion over the next ten years for unneeded nuclear modernization.
For most of the post-World War II period, there was a bipartisan approach toward our nuclear posture, and President Eisenhower set the tone in the 1950s when he ruled out nuclear war against non-nuclear states. His emphasis on the importance of deterrence of a nuclear war challenged Harvard Professor Henry A. Kissinger’s absurdist belief that the United States could wage and win a “limited” nuclear war. In the 1980s, Harvard Professor Richard Pipes revived Kissinger’s belief and used his advisory position on Reagan’s national security council to block discussion of nuclear disarmament. Fortunately, Pipes returned to Harvard before Reagan’s second term in office, and Reagan concluded that “nuclear war cannot be won—and must never be fought.”
Trump’s national security adviser, unfortunately, is John Bolton who argues that advances in nuclear weaponry could make nuclear war winnable. Bolton was in President George W. Bush’s administration in 2002, when Bush recklessly abrogated the ABM Treaty, and soon after joining the Trump administration he successfully lobbied for the abrogation of the INF Treaty. For the past several years, Russia has been trying to engage the United States in a serious dialogue to pledge no first use of nuclear weapons; no militarization of outer space; and the creation of nuclear-free zones. The Obama administrations deferred to the Pentagon’s opposition to these measures. In addition to upgrading nuclear forces, the Trump administration supports the creation of a Space Command.
President Clinton contributed to the decline of arms control and disarmament in the 1990s when he bowed to pressure from such Republican hardliners in the Congress as Senator Jesse Helms and Representative Newt Gingrich and abolished the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA). The agency housed the federal government’s expertise on nuclear weaponry, lobbied on Capitol Hill for disarmament, and countered the Pentagon’s opposition to arms control. ACDA’s experts understood the importance of minimal deterrence, and worked with the intelligence community to explain to an often reluctant Congress the art of technological verification and monitoring of arms control agreements. Presently there is no group of experts inside or outside the government challenging the Pentagon’s pursuit of war-fighting strategies under the guise of “flexible deterrence.”
Trump’s obsequious behavior toward Russian President Vladimir Putin is belied by his lack of interest in pursuing arms control and disarmament, which Moscow favors. National security adviser Bolton and Secretary of State Pompeo oppose disarmament measures and have demonstrated no interest in a serious dialogue with their Russian counterparts. The Pentagon’s current Defense Planning Guidance argues there is “no higher priority for national security” than replacing the current nuclear force, which is described as “obsolete” and “inflexible.” Last year’s Nuclear Posture Review referred to current weaponry as “old” and “untrustworthy,” which is part and parcel of the Pentagon’s con game for greater defense spending. New systems would merely increase the overkill capability that currently exists.
In actual fact, nuclear weapons have no utilitarian value whatsoever, and the fact that the United States and the former Soviet Union actually maintained a nuclear weapons inventory that previously totaled more than 60,000 weapons points to the irresponsibility and cavalier attitudes of the national security leadership in both countries. Disarmament agreements actually brought down this total to 15,000 weapons. With the abrogation of the ABM and INF treaties and the expiration of the New START treaty in 2021, however, we are looking at a renewed arms race and the further appropriation of scarce resources on unneeded weapons.