Nukes, the New Congress, and the Lost Art of Political Compromise

President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State William P. Rogers meet at the White House in Washington on May 21, 1971 with delegates to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.

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President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State William P. Rogers meet at the White House in Washington on May 21, 1971 with delegates to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.

In the past, arms controllers and deterrence boosters compromised on deals that ultimately reduced nuclear dangers. No more.

One consequence of the demise of political compromise on Capitol Hill is that existing treaties reducing nuclear arms are threatened with extinction. Donald Trump has announced his intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, citing a Russian violation and the need to counter Chinese missiles. Next up on the chopping block may well be the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), finalized by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev in 2010.

During the Cold War, domestic bargaining between advocates and skeptics of nuclear arms control became ritualized. The Congress authorized expensive “safeguards” and strategic modernization programs while approving arms control agreements. Nuclear weapon strategists and arms controllers were both unhappy with these transactions, but for different reasons. Deterrence strategists were uncomfortable with treaties, while arms controllers disliked spending large sums for strategic modernization programs. Nonetheless, these deals laid the basis for steep nuclear arms reductions when political conditions permitted. Similar tradeoffs occurred for New START’s ratification.

With the revival of strategic competition with Russia and increased tensions with China, the old formula of negotiating new diplomatic accords in return for appropriations for a new generation of strategic arms seems unlikely to work. The more that boosters of nuclear weapon programs take aim at arms reduction treaties, the more those supportive of treaties take aim at strategic modernization programs. If treaties that restrain the nuclear arms competition are killed, then tighter budgets could be used as a surrogate, cutting excessive expenditures and questionable initiatives. This new formula is a work in progress.

During the Cold War, the founding fathers of arms control in the early 1960s anticipated the need for compromise to integrate the practice of arms control into defense acquisition and military strategies. They assumed that without such compromise, arms control would fail, military strategy would be defective, and nuclear dangers would grow.

Related: How To Get Nuclear-Weapons Treaties Back on Track

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The difficulty of integrating arms control with defense programs was immediately evident. The first agreements reached between Washington and Moscow resulting from the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) contained porous constraints on offensive forces and strict ones on missile defenses. Led by Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, Nixon Administration officials gravely warned that new missiles, submarines, and bombers would be needed to compete with the Soviet Union, which could be expected to exploit loopholes that U.S. negotiators were unable to close. Supporters of nuclear arms control on Capitol Hill swallowed their misgivings and appropriated the funds for strategic modernization programs.

It took negotiators the better part of two decades to control and reduce strategic forces that were given an impetus by Moscow and Washington after the SALT agreements. Arms controllers felt they got the short end of the stick in bargaining over SALT. They also felt burned when, after agreeing to write large, open-ended checks to the nuclear labs, Senate Republicans refusal to provide consent to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999. Arms controllers were also unhappy when they agreed to begin spending for replacement missiles, submarines and bombers in return for New START’s modest reductions.

Several questions remained open, including whether the number of strategic nuclear delivery vehicles could be reduced to below-New START levels, as expressly permitted in the Treaty by means of an executive agreement; and how much to spend on strategic force modernization programs. Team Obama left these decisions to its successor, presuming that cuts would occur for budgetary reasons. Instead, Barack Obama found himself passing the baton to Donald Trump, who evinced no deep interest in further reductions, let alone extending New START for another five years. Meanwhile, the costs to build and maintain strategic modernization programs, now estimated to be well over $1 trillion, continue to rise.

The rules for domestic bargaining have changed since the Nixon administration’s jousting with the Congress over the SALT agreements. With the demise of treaties, and the lack of interest by boosters of nuclear deterrence in negotiating new ones, Democrats on Capitol Hill can be expected to take a harder look at the costs of strategic modernization programs, especially those that seem excessive and unwise.

The America First wing within the Republican Party has also lost interest in bargaining, whether domestic or foreign. They oppose treaties constraining U.S. nuclear capabilities, preferring coercive means of leverage while being dismissive of diplomacy. The old-fashioned formula for success by Republican administrations — to scare the Kremlin into deeper cuts by proceeding with missile defenses or to zero out categories of missiles by preparing to deploy them — was predicated on a willingness for deal making that is no longer apparent.

Before the recent elections, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a shot across his Republican colleagues’ bow, reminding them that Democratic support for strategic modernization programs would be linked to Republican support for treaties. The Trump administration ignored this warning by announcing its intent to withdraw from the INF Treaty, and could disregard it again by withdrawing from New START.

The domestic backlash to treaty-trashing is likely to be directed against attempts to revive space-based missile defense interceptors and the pursuit of new low-yield warhead designs that would add to those already in the panoply of U.S. deterrence capabilities. These programs are likely to be bridges too far for any Democratic majority on Capitol Hill or for a new Democrat in the White House. The backlash could also extend to nuclear force structure. Wise defense-budget tradeoffs seemingly dictate nuclear force reductions, but they could be overridden by unwise decisions by the Kremlin.

Much is up in the air. In the past, the art of political compromise has led to limits on terrestrial missile defenses, prohibitions on space-based interceptors, and a signed but un-ratified treaty ending nuclear testing. These results have left neither camp happy, but they have facilitated steep reductions in nuclear forces and nuclear dangers. No major or regional power has tested nuclear warhead designs in two decades, while strategic modernization programs have progressed, but at reduced levels.

Another compromise — domestic, as well as between Washington and Moscow — is built into New START’s provisions for further reductions and a five-year extension. This deal is waiting to be struck — unless Donald Trump and John Bolton announce another preemptive U.S. treaty withdrawal. While there are no Russian violations to blame for a preemptive U.S. withdrawal from New START, Trump set this precedent by walking away from the Iranian nuclear deal that Tehran was observing.

The old formula of negotiating treaties and spending large sums for U.S. strategic modernization programs doesn’t fit a period of unilateralism and hyper-partisanship. Unilateralism doesn’t just apply to treaty withdrawal; it can also apply to cuts in budgets and the force levels that budgets support.

The old formula combining limits in nuclear capabilities by means of arms control alongside deterrence bothered everyone but was surprisingly successful. There were no mushroom clouds on battlefields during the Cold War. Deterrence alone didn’t achieve this result because deterrence was about threatening behavior. Deterrence needed reassurance to succeed. A treaty-based system of strategic cooperation reduced nuclear dangers, allowed for deep cuts in nuclear forces and helped prevent proliferation.

We ought to be able to learn from our successes. Strategic modernization programs alone won’t make us safer. As in the past, deterrence requires the reassurance of nuclear arms control, whether explicit or tacit, to reduce nuclear dangers. If the executive branch fails to act wisely — if it doesn’t replace treaties that have made us safer with something better and more reassuring — then members of Congress are obliged to fill in this leadership void.

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