Trump’s War on Arms Control and Disarmament

Photograph Source: ZhengZhou – CC BY-SA 3.0

A successor to the Trump administration will have to rebuild the credibility of the Department of Justice and the effectiveness of such regulatory agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Finance Protection Agency.  It will have to rebuild the intelligence community, which has been heavily politicized, and the Department of State, which has been hallowed out.  Now, you can add the field of arms control and disarmament to the list of reclamation projects because of the hostile and counterproductive acts of the Trump administration.

Every U.S. president since Dwight David Eisenhower has understood the importance of arms control and disarmament, which serves to highlight the ignorance and inexperience of Donald Trump and his key advisers regarding disarmament issues.  Over the past two years, the Trump administration has scuttled the Iran nuclear accord, which brought a measure of predictability to the volatile Middle East, and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which destroyed more missiles that any treaty in history.  Now, the Trump administration has walked away from the Open Skies Treaty, which was particularly important to the Baltic states and the East Europeans for monitoring Russian troop movements on their borders.

The treaty itself was first suggested by President Eisenhower in the 1950s as a way to improve the strategic dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union.  It was ultimately negotiated by President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The Trump administration’s claim that the treaty permits surveys of civilian targets in the United States that pose “an unacceptable risk to our national security” is particularly ludicrous.  Information on U.S. infrastructure is publicly available to anyone from Google Earth as well as commercial imagery.

The U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty is particularly important as it constitutes another gratuitous setback to the transatlantic security dialogue and as a signal that the United States has no interest in any disarmament dialogue with Russia, including the need for extending the New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (New START), the last remaining arms control agreement with Russia.  The New START limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed nuclear missiles each, but the Obama administration had to bow to Republicans to accept a $1.7 trillion nuclear modernization program in order to support the treaty.  And such neoconservatives as Senators Ted Cruz (R/TX) and Tom Cotton (R/AK) are supportive of the Trump administration’s commitment to long-term nuclear modernization that has no place for arms control measures.

For the past several years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to engage the United States in an arms control dialogue to include a pledge to no-first-use of nuclear weapons; no militarization of outer space; and the creation of nuclear-free zones.  The Trump administration has turned its back on all of the Russian initiatives, and the recent creation of a Space Force is one more deterrent to a conciliatory dialogue.  Such a dialogue was the central key to improving relations between Washington and Moscow during the worst days of the Cold War.

Meanwhile, opeds in the New York Times and the Washington Post have defended the Trump administration’s latest salvo against arms control and disarmament, and even suggested that withdrawal from the Open Skies agreement is a “hopeful” sign for Russian-American relations.  Writing in the Post on May 22, David Ignatius, who typically supports administration positions on defense policy, argues that Trump himself favors “more engagement” with Moscow and that the withdrawal from the international treaty is in fact a “tactical tilt toward Russia.”  Ignatius bases that view on the expectation that Trump really wants to draw the Chinese into the disarmament dialogue and, furthermore, that Russia shares that goal.  It is far more likely, in my estimation, that Beijing currently has no interest in being drawn into a three-way dialogue on arms control and that U.S. emphasis on including China in any new strategic arms treaty is in fact a “poison pill” to kill the current strategic arms agreement that expires this winter.

The Times oped, moreover, would have you believe that so-called Russian abuses of the Open Skies accord are actually undermining American security.  Tim Morrison, a Russian hard-liner who formerly served on Trump’s National Security Council, argues that Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its “invasion” of Syria justify scuttling an agreement that didn’t provide advance warning of such “military adventures.”  He fails to mention that satellites designed to provide such intelligence are not affected by the Open Skies Treaty.  Morrison fails to mention that the real value of the treaty was providing assurance to our European NATO allies regarding Russian troop movements on their borders.  (Morrison also should have mentioned that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad invited the Soviet deployment, which hardly counts as an “invasion.”

President John F. Kennedy ignored the Pentagon’s opposition to the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, and even President Ronald Reagan ignored the opposition of Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle to complete the INF Treaty in 1987.  There are no genuine arms control specialists in the Trump administration, which is staffed by loyalists and anti-Russian hardliners such as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and the newly appointed arms negotiator Marshall Billingslea.  Once upon a time, the United States had an Arms Control and Disarmament Agency that served as a lobby for disarmament, but President Bill Clinton bowed to right-wing pressure in 1997 and killed the independence of the agency by folding it into the Department of State.  Thus, the rebuilding task for U.S. national security policy will be difficult and time-consuming.


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Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent book is “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing), and he is the author of the forthcoming “The Dangerous National Security State” (2020).” Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.

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