Trump Once Wanted to Negotiate With Russia Over Nukes. Then Mueller Happened.

The U.S. president might be too hemmed in by the Russia probe to attempt a successor to the INF or START treaties.

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands before attending a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands before attending a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)

More than 30 years ago, when he was still a builder in Manhattan, Donald Trump said he had one great ambition: He wanted then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan to appoint him America’s envoy to Moscow to negotiate a nuclear arms deal. “It’ll take one hour of discussion before the Cold War is over,” Trump was said to have boasted at the time.

Plainly, the Trumpian grandiosity was always there, but what happened to the ambition? Now that he’s president, Trump doesn’t need to wait for an appointment to try his hand at nuclear negotiation. Only last year the president called nuclear weapons “the biggest problem in the world.” And yet Trump has barely mentioned the issue while his administration announced Friday it is pulling out of the three-decade-old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and is possibly setting its sights on former President Barack Obama’s 2011 New START treaty, the strategic arms reduction pact that will expire about two weeks into the next presidential term if it isn’t extended. Negotiations on such an extension would need to begin soon.

Trump has always yearned for the big deal, and he’s demonstrated that he’s not fond of any treaty he didn’t negotiate himself, especially if it was Obama’s doing. Trump pulled out of Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, Paris climate pact, and Trans-Pacific Partnership, and he replaced former President Bill Clinton’s NAFTA trade deal with the slightly retooled U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, even though the not-yet-confirmed accord retains most of the provisions of the original one.

But the nuclear arms arena is especially wide open and ripe for fresh presidential negotiation, many nuclear experts say. While some lament the likely demise of the INF pact—having served notice, Washington now has six months to formally withdraw—they also acknowledge that to some extent the treaty was based on outdated threats and technology. And they say Trump could, at long last, put his own stamp on nuclear arms negotiations in this new era.

“I would tell the president that, given the decision on INF, there’s an opportunity here not only to preserve New START but to make your own groundbreaking agreement with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” said Lynn Rusten, who served as senior director for arms control on Obama’s National Security Council. “And you can do it relatively easily and quickly by extending New START. You don’t need new underlying verification and inspection procedures. You can just build on it.”

In contrast to the INF Treaty, which Washington has accused Russia of violating for years, the Trump administration has not questioned whether Putin is adequately observing the New START treaty.

There may be several reasons why Trump is not moving ahead on nuclear weapons negotiations, despite his long-ago ambitions. One, they are notably difficult and abstruse, and Trump is not known as a details person (though the same reputation did not stop Reagan, who signed the INF Treaty in 1987). Second, Trump has purged his administration of moderate internationalists who tend to favor diplomacy—with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly the most recent departures. His ultra-hawkish national security advisor, John Bolton, has long inveighed against both the INF and New START treaties.

But the main reason may have more to do with the multiple investigations into Trump’s Russia ties, especially special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the 2016 Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Moscow. Last July, shortly before Trump flew to Helsinki for his first summit with Putin, he was asked by reporters what he hoped to accomplish. “No more nuclear weapons anywhere in the world, no more wars, no more problems, no more conflicts,” he declared. Trump also said he thought he and Putin would have “an extraordinary relationship.”

The summit, however, was widely deemed a political disaster for Trump, and it was perhaps the last time the president spoke in such positive terms of his relationship with the Russian leader. At the summit, Trump fumbled by appearing to accept Putin’s denials of interference in the 2016 election over the findings of his own U.S. intelligence agencies, and since then the president has been hemmed in by almost constant questions in the media about whether he has been compromised by Putin and Russian intelligence—financially, sexually, or in some other way. The FBI at one point even opened up an investigation into whether Trump was a Russian counterintelligence asset. At the G-20 summit in Argentina in November 2018, Trump felt pressured to cancel his one-on-one with Putin (though he later held an “informal” meeting, the White House said, at which once again no official note-takers were reportedly present).

The oddity of Trump’s furtive relations with Putin under the shadow of the Russia probe is that he had previously said one of his goals as president was to dramatically improve relations with Moscow. And shortly before the Helsinki summit, Trump said he planned to discuss nuclear arms reduction with Putin.

“If we can do something to substantially reduce them, I mean, ideally get rid of them, maybe that’s a dream, but certainly it’s a subject that I’ll be bringing up with him,” Trump said. “The proliferation is a tremendous, I mean, to me, it’s the biggest problem in the world, nuclear weapons, biggest problem in the world.”

Experts say advances in technology—both in the nuclear arms themselves and in the ability to monitor them—justify creative new arms control deals building on the INF and New START treaties, since the older pacts don’t account for many of these changes. The Russians, for example, say they are working on advanced new weapons systems such as an “unlimited range” cruise missile as well as hypersonic weapons, while in his U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, Trump outlined the development of a new nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile.

Meanwhile “we’re still doing verification with technologies from the 1970s,” said Alexandra Bell, a former senior Obama administration official now at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “The technology and tools of the information age haven’t been incorporated.”

New surveillance and verification technology not available during the INF Treaty era could also shift the focus from delivery systems—which are observable from space—to monitoring the number of nuclear warheads themselves. And despite some Russian concern over the possible passing of the INF Treaty—which covered ground-launched intermediate-range nuclear weapons targeted at Europe—Moscow’s own advances in air- and sea-launched weapons have rendered the agreement partly dated from its perspective as well.

Even so, the Kremlin remains concerned over the size of the U.S. arsenal and, with an economy roughly one-tenth the size of America’s, Putin knows he can’t afford another arms race of the kind that once bankrupted the Soviet Union.

“If I were playing the Russian hand, I would say, ‘Let’s have a new treaty, a Donald Trump treaty rather than an Obama treaty,’” said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear arms specialist at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. “If the Russians were clever, they would propose something to Trump attractive enough to get his Nobel Peace Prize juices flowing.” By tweaking the New START pact as he did with NAFTA—and there are ample opportunities, since a slew of new missile systems not currently covered by the treaty could then be accounted for—Trump could call the new accord his own.

Added Bunn: “Then Trump would be able to go out and say: That Obama was so stupid.”

But Trump may need to get past his Putin problem first. “I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics,” Trump said in Helsinki. He now has an opportunity to prove it.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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