Ego + ignorance is a bad combination for someone with his finger on the button.
- By Jeffrey LewisJeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
I’ll say this about Donald Trump: He is a one-man walking campaign for nuclear disarmament.
I haven’t seen this much interest in the bomb since I was a kid and The Day After scared the living crap out of everyone I knew. Of course, nothing keeps the mind focused on the apocalypse quite like the daily prospect that President Caligula might initiate a thermonuclear holocaust while screaming at Morning Joe in his bathrobe.
In case you haven’t heard the news, Trump has ordered the Department of Defense to conduct a new Nuclear Posture Review and rejected Vladimir Putin’s proposal to extend the New START treaty. Taken together, one might conclude that Trump is about to start up an arms race. It’s probably not that bad, but it’s clearly amateur hour in the White House.
First, Trump signed a presidential memorandum that called for a new Nuclear Posture Review. (Every administration has a different name for its presidential directives for the same reason that dogs pee on fire hydrants. Under Obama, these were called “presidential policy directives.”)
I know I am starting to sound like a broken record, but THERE IS NO REASON TO CONDUCT A NUCLEAR POSTURE REVIEW. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama each conducted a Nuclear Posture Review, so most people now assume this is just a “thing” a new president does. The Democratic platform stupidly called for one, too. But it ain’t so, although the habit seems to be contagious. Before Trump, Clinton was the only president to voluntarily conduct such a review — and it was a disaster for the administration. Congress mandated the other two in order to run out the clock on any further nuclear policies from Clinton and Bush.
As the name implies, a Nuclear Posture Review is just a study. The Obama administration began its posture “review” upon entering office and afterward commissioned a poorly named “90-day implementation study” — that’s right a study of a review! — that took nearly two years to complete. In the end, Obama didn’t sign new guidance on the “employment” of nuclear weapons until June 2013, months after his first term was over.
What Clinton, Bush, and Obama all discovered was that Nuclear Posture Reviews are, at best, a total waste of time. When a president actually wants to make changes to nuclear policy, forces, or posture, the White House will start from square one. By initiating a new Nuclear Posture Review, Trump is basically putting himself at the mercy of Secretary of Defense James Mattis. My guess is the 2017 Nuclear Posture Review will be, like the 2002 version, a quick and dirty affair that is basically the same wish list in the unpublished December 2016 Defense Science Board study, including “tailored nuclear option for limited use.”
But a wish list isn’t going to implement itself. And as I keep pointing out, no one has any idea where to find the money to replace the existing nuclear triad, let alone to fund some of the new capabilities that are likely to get some air time.
Which brings me to Trump’s comments on the New START treaty. According to press reports, Trump was talking to Putin on the phone when the Russian president suggested extending the treaty through to 2021. Trump apparently had to pause his conversation to ask aides what the treaty was and then launched into a diatribe about what a bad deal it was.
Trump said the same thing on the campaign trail when he criticized the “START Up” treaty (not its name) for prohibiting the United States from building nuclear warheads (which it doesn’t) and allowing Russia to build up its arsenal (it imposes the same limits on the United States and Russia). The only thing Trump knew about the treaty was that Obama signed it — and that was reason enough to hate it.
This does raise an interesting question. Russia is in the midst of a fairly hefty nuclear modernization, as I have previously detailed in this column. It is developing new intermediate-range nuclear forces in contravention of the 1987 treaty regarding such weapons; new strategic forces like a heavy intercontinental ballistic missile and rail-mobile ICBM; and bizarre concepts like the Status-6 underwater drone, among others.
The New START treaty was an imperfect agreement. The Obama administration took office in January 2009 with less than a year before the 1991 START treaty — and its essential web of verification measures — expired. So New START was an interim agreement that preserved as many of the verification measures as Russia would allow and made very modest reductions for window dressing.
I’m a supporter of the treaty, but I’ll also acknowledge that the reductions weren’t deep enough, which has allowed Russia to build up its forces. I am not going to take any guff from treaty opponents, though, because they used to argue that the agreed-upon limits were already too low, and thus a concession to the Russians, who lagged behind us at the time. “Why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free?” they asked. Well, now Russia’s nuclear forces are increasing, and we are lucky there is any limit at all. The fact is, the limits Obama negotiated were too high, allowing Russia to build this array of new systems without worrying about violating any treaty limits.
Now some of my hypocritical opponents are staffing the Trump administration, planning a Nuclear Posture Review that will make my children’s Christmas lists look modest, and talking about jettisoning the New START treaty.
This isn’t a strategy; it’s a temper tantrum. There’s no reason to piss all over the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and the New START treaty (unless the commander in chief truly does have a fetish). It might make Trump and his eggs on Twitter feel powerful, but it won’t reduce any nuclear dangers.
Whether or not you like the existing Nuclear Posture Review or the New START treaty, they do accurately reckon, more or less, with the political, technical, and budgetary realities that constrain our nuclear policy. A John McCain or Mitt Romney administration might have talked differently about the bomb than the Obama White House, but each would have inherited the same nuclear forces that needed to be replaced, had to make the same choices under the same lousy fiscal environment, and been forced to negotiate with the same irksome Russians. There just isn’t that much space for a radically different outcome.
And I suspect that’s why you’ve seen Defense Secretary Mattis caution that nuclear modernization could “squeeze out” other priorities and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggest the United States should remain “engaged” with Russia through the New START treaty. They may want to do things somewhat differently than Obama, but they are smart enough to realize that they face the same set of constraints.
The danger here is Trump’s ego. After his tweet during the transition about “expanding” U.S. nuclear capabilities prompted concerns that he was restarting an arms race, Trump refused to back down. “Let it be an arms race,” he reportedly told Mika Brzezinski. “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” I somehow doubt Trump meant the off-brand Braveheart nonsense — it is just his instinct to react to criticism by doubling down. So what happens when Mattis tells Trump there isn’t enough money or Tillerson explains the importance of the New START verification procedures? Does Trump walk back his comments — or jump off the cliff, taking the rest of us with him?
It is easy to be appalled at Trump’s willingness to play with the fate of the world for, in effect, ratings. Then again, it is sort of intoxicating. Thanks to The Donald, people now find my work interesting.
Photo credit: ANDREW RENNEISEN/Getty Images