Seeking Prudent Progress Through Arms Control, Not Disarmament


Richard Weitz

The Trump administration is skeptical of nuclear disarmament, but supports arms control and strategic stability measures, under appropriate conditions, designed to keep state competition constrained.

Specifically, the administration recognizes that arms control, along with other measures, can bolster the security of the United States, its allies, and U.S. partners.

As described in its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), congressional testimony, and think tank presentations, the Trump administration will strive for a combination of diplomacy, arms control, and traditional military defensive measures to enhance national and global security:

1) limit the number of nuclear weapons states;

2) prevent terrorists access to nuclear weapons and materials;

3) control weapons-usable fissile material and related technology;

4) pursue verifiable and enforceable arms control agreements; and

5) use diplomacy to reduce future threats, including by pursuing “mutual restraints” that are verifiable and enforceable.

In the NPR’s view, arms control can help “manage strategic competition” by “foster[ing] transparency, understanding, and predictability”; minimize “the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation”; and limit the number of hostile nuclear weapons states.

The administration does insist that any arms control agreement be “enforceable.” Some complain that this standard is not adequately defined in the NPR.

However, this wording likely aims at excluding purely “declaratory” arms control, such as the Chinese government’s commitment not to use nuclear weapons first, the recently adopted Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which lack means of verification and compliance.

The Trump administration’s policies towards nuclear weapons testing are probably better than most arms control advocates could reasonably have expected. The United States does not intend to resume testing nuclear weapons any time soon and calls on all other states to eschew such testing.

The White House will also continue the practice of recent administration of deferring formal submission of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) for Senate ratification rather than abandon the treaty.

It will also sustain U.S. support to the CTBT Organization Preparatory Committee, the International Monitoring System, and the International Data Center. These three mechanisms, designed to monitor possible nuclear explosive testing by any state, have played an important role in confirming recent North Korean nuclear tests.

The Trump NPR praises the “positive role” of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in bolstering international support, at both the normative and operational levels, for preventing new nuclear states and enhanced nuclear safety and security standards.

It is true that administration representatives eschew references to the traditional “three-pillar” approach to the NPT. This framework links nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

The perceived problem with this linkage is that many countries have traditionally used this connection to justify a right to pursue proliferation-sensitive technologies.

For example, countries pursue uranium enrichment, which can be used to make weapons-grade fissile material.

The new NPR should make nuclear proliferation less likely in the short term. Most of the countries that could most readily obtain nuclear weapons are U.S. allies: Japan, South Korea, Australia, and many NATO members have advanced civilian nuclear power programs or other critical foundations for launching a nuclear weapons program.

Insofar as these allies become more confident that the Trump administration will support traditional U.S. nuclear security guarantees, they will refrain from pursuing their own nuclear weapons. The NPR rightly notes that, “Credible U.S. extended nuclear deterrence will continue to be a cornerstone of U.S. non-proliferation efforts.”

Many foreign governments will be upset, or profess to be upset, that the Trump administration is not offering concrete steps toward nuclear disarmament or further reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security. They will probably criticize U.S. policies at the 2020 NPT Review Conference as well as its preparatory meetings.

However, Washington’s stance, by itself, is unlikely to lead these states to pursue nuclear weapons. Not only are they strongly opposed to nuclear proliferation, but regional security dynamics and internal factors usually have a much greater impact on such weighty decisions.

The NPR does not offer new arms control initiatives. It discusses the possible extension of New START and other arms control options, but does not endorse these or any other specific measures.

The general tone is that the United States will abstain from global arms control leadership for a while given the adverse global security environment, the need to recapitulate the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure and fortify U.S. deterrence guarantees, and the perception that unilateral U.S. nuclear reductions backfired in the past.

The Trump administration has not yet described the details of its counter-nuclear terrorism strategy, but there are reports that U.S officials will release a formal strategy document on this issue later this year.

The NPR does support projects that build “defense in depth” against nuclear terrorism. These activities include measures to secure and reduce WMD materials; limit the spread of nuclear technologies and expertise; and strengthen national defenses, preparedness, and resilience.

In particular, the United States will strengthen multinational control regimes like the Nuclear Suppliers Group; improve nuclear forensics techniques and technologies to identify and deter state support for nuclear terrorism; and build resilience against any nuclear terrorism incidents that might occur—to limit the damage and overcome its consequences as rapidly as possible.

U.S. funding for countering WMD proliferation also remains substantial. For example, the administration is spending millions of dollars to train and equip foreign militaries to counter WMD threats. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) are overseeing these programs.

Some proposed changes—more tightly integrating conventional and nuclear forces in exercises and using strategic submarines for launching a single or couple low-yield nuclear weapons—could raise the nuclear threshold if not carefully executed.

It is true that Chinese and Russian forces and exercises employ similar conventional-nuclear integration, but it would be better to dissuade them from such a practice rather than imitate them.

Indeed, the Trump NPR expresses readiness to consider diverse measures “to increase transparency and predictability, where appropriate, to avoid potential miscalculation among nuclear weapons states and other possessor states [which might include India, Pakistan and other countries having nuclear arms beyond the five NPT-recognized nuclear weapons states] through strategic dialogues, risk-reduction communications channels, and the sharing of best practices related to nuclear weapons safety and security.”

The administration should employ the strategic stability talks with Beijing and Moscow, endorsed in the NPR, to discuss the implications of these issues with China and Russia as well as consider possible operational arms control measures to reduce miscalculations.

Photo above: President Trump on his first call to President Putin shortly after taking office. Credit: Getty Images

Editor’s Comment: In many ways the Trump Administration approach follows that of the Reagan Administration with regard to arms control. Here the approach to arms control really was seen as part of effective defense planning and risk reduction engaged in directly with the Soviet Union.

For example, see Robbin Laird and Dale Herspring, The Soviet Union and Strategic Arms (Westview, 1984).