Is Trump killing nuclear arms control or can he broker deals with North Korea and Russia to make the world a safer place?
Will Saetren says the US president does not have a great record on international arms control agreements, but deals with North Korea and Russia may be on the cards. With the risk of proliferation increasing, that can only be a good thing
Arms control isn’t dead, but it is dying and the process has been slow and painful. The death spiral began long before Donald Trump became president of the United States. The last major arms control treaty, New START, which limited Russia and the US to 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons each, was signed in 2010.
Since then, the arms control agenda has ground to a halt. In 2013, then president Barack Obama sought additional reductions, one-third beyond the limits of New START. But the Russians refused, and there was no deal. One year later, the US accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, an agreement that stabilised the nuclear stand-off between East and West as the cold war raged.
Trump inherited this dismal state of affairs, but rather than revitalise the fragile arms control regime he has taken a wrecking ball to it.
One of Trump’s first orders of business upon assuming the presidency was to conduct a nuclear posture review, which for the first time since the Nixon administration expands the role and number of nuclear weapons in America’s national security strategy.
The review calls for the reintroduction of the sea-launched nuclear cruise missile, a relic of the cold war that was removed from service in 1991. The document also emphasises the need for new, low-yield nuclear weapons to deter adversaries such as China and Russia. But low-yield nuclear weapons have the opposite effect, serving as a gateway drug for nuclear war by increasing the risk of their use in the first place.
In direct violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Trump has suggested that US allies including South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia develop their own nuclear weapons, rather than rely on the US nuclear umbrella for deterrence. When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told 60 Minutes that his country would “without a doubt” develop nuclear weapons if its arch-rival Iran did, the White House’s failed to condemn his statement, contradicting decades of US policy to discourage the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology.
The likelihood of Iran developing a nuclear weapon has dramatically increased, thanks to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement. The multilateral deal, painstakingly negotiated over years, consisted of more than 150 pages of verification measures that permanently cut off Iran’s pathway to a nuclear bomb. Despite this, and in the face of fierce opposition from the international community, Trump tore up the agreement, slamming it as “a horrible one-sided deal”.
This logic stands in stark contrast to the “grand bargain” that Trump struck with North Korea in Singapore. Although Trump insists that his face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-un eliminated the nuclear threat from Pyongyang, there is no reason to believe this is true. The summit statement of just 357 words contains little more than a vague pledge to denuclearise, with no timeline, and no verification measures.
If Trump was trying to establish a stronger standard for arms control by rejecting the Iran deal, he clearly missed the mark in Singapore. The declaration amounts to little more than a pinky promise, and there are strong indicators that Kim is already breaking it.
US intelligence agencies have uncovered evidence that North Korea is continuing to develop its nuclear weapons programme. The intelligence also indicates that senior North Korean officials are actively exploring ways to deceive the US, by publicly disposing of a few nuclear warheads, while secretly retaining dozens.
The message to aspiring proliferators is crystal clear: spend years negotiating a robust, multilateral arms control agreement and you’re wasting your time. But if you hang in there, endure decades of sanctions and develop a credible nuclear deterrent, you will eventually get a summit with the leader of the free world and a seat at the table.
The collapse of the arms control regime that prevented the cold war from going hot is happening at one of the worst moments possible. All eight nuclear weapons states are enhancing their nuclear forces and, without any limits, we are looking at the real possibility of an unconstrained nuclear free-for-all that could end in disaster.
The good news is that the patient can still be saved.
The US and Russia can agree to extend New START past its expiration date of 2021. Both Vladimir Putin and Trump expressed a desire to do so at their recent summit in Helsinki, and it could be accomplished through a simple executive agreement. Although it is far from certain that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons, it has thus far lived up to its promise to halt nuclear and missile tests. This should be set in stone by obtaining North Korea’s signature on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Last, but not least, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty must be saved.
What does Russian President Vladimir Putin fear?
As my colleague Zack Brown has suggested, the US should leverage the Special Verification Commission, an INF mechanism specifically designed to “resolve questions relating to compliance” to resume physical inspections by both parties to verify treaty compliance.
The US can sweeten the deal by giving Russian inspectors access to American missile defence sites on Russia’s border. These inspectors would be able to verify that the sites are unable to deliver offensive nuclear missiles in the event of a crisis, a charge that Moscow frequently cites as evidence that the US, not Russia, is violating the INF treaty.
Ironically, Trump might be the only person in America who has the political capital to accomplish these goals. As he himself famously claimed, he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters. It’s hard to imagine Trump’s supporters batting an eyelid if he actually made the world a safer place. More likely than not, it would strengthen their belief in his greatness and demands that he be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
But, perhaps most importantly, Trump would be fulfilling his long-time promise to improve relations with Russia by reviving the arms control regime. For this president, that might be the biggest prize of all.
Will Saetren is a research associate at the Institute for China-America Studies, where he specialises in nuclear weapons policy