War Stories

How Trump Could Restart the Nuclear Arms Race

Some key arms control agreements could be on the chopping block.

Photo illustration of Donald Trump in front of a nuclear explosion.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by CUTWORLD/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Jack Hill—WPA Pool/Getty Images.

If President Donald Trump doesn’t act quickly, the nuclear arms race, which has been fairly dormant for decades, might break into a gallop.

Trump is famously hostile toward international treaties, especially those that constrain America’s actions, even if they’re actions that no one is particularly keen to take. The Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty are all commitments that Trump has ripped up for no good reason.

The scuttling of that last accord, often abbreviated as the INF Treaty, which was signed in 1987 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev (and eliminated all U.S. and Soviet missiles having a range between 500 and 5,000 kilometers), marked the first time Trump abrogated a nuclear arms agreement between the United States and Russia, the two major nuclear powers.

He may be gearing to rip up two more: the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which 184 nations have signed since it was finalized in 1996, and New START, which has capped U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear armaments—and allowed inspectors to verify compliance by both sides—since 2010.

Pulling out of the INF Treaty, though symbolically disconcerting, probably won’t have much effect: Neither country is going back to the time when thousands of nuclear missiles—along with several divisions of troops, tanks, and other combat vehicles—faced each other across the border of Eastern and Western Europe.

Withdrawing from the test ban treaty, which prohibits all nuclear explosions, underground or anywhere else, would be more serious, but two of the most avid and knowledgeable arms-control advocates aren’t too worried that will happen. Jon Wolfsthal, director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and a former adviser to President Barack Obama, told me he doubts that politicians, especially in Nevada, home of the only U.S. nuclear test site (just 60 miles from Las Vegas), would allow a resumption of underground nuclear explosions. Hans Kristensen, of the Federation of American Scientists, noted that the nuclear labs get lots of money testing components of nuclear weapons, which the treaty allows and which obviate the need to set off explosions; going back to full tests would wreck that business. (Tests in the atmosphere and outer space have been banned by treaty since 1963.)

I think they’re right. The fact is, no high-ranking U.S. official or politician really wants to set off nuclear explosions. If they did, they could have done so.

The U.S. Senate, in part as a slap to President Bill Clinton, voted down the test ban treaty in 1999. Legally, there is no treaty for Trump to withdraw from. No one in any powerful position is pushing for the return of full-scale nuclear weapons tests, mainly because the tests aren’t needed. (Clinton at the time said he would abide by the treaty, anyway; his successors have done so as well.)

The fuss over the treaty arose in late May, when Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley Jr., director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told an audience at the Hudson Institute that Russia “probably is not adhering” to the test moratorium. This was a flimsy-enough assertion, as the word probably, in an intelligence assessment, reflects less-than-firm confidence. Then, during the question-and-answer period, he all but debunked even that appraisal. Asked whether the Russians were actually testing nuclear explosives, he replied, “I’ll have to say I believe they have the capability to do that.” No evidence of actual tests has since been released; other U.S. intelligence agencies are said to disagree with Ashley’s view.

The next treaty to come up for review—the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the centerpiece of Obama’s first-term “reset” with, at the time, the quite cooperative Russian government led by Dmitry Medvedev—is a more troubling matter.

Unlike the test ban treaty, which is in force indefinitely, New START expires in February 2021. At that point, the treaty states, the Russian and American presidents can sign a document extending it another five years—but they have to sign such a document. The extension doesn’t happen automatically.

So that’s the question: If Trump wins the 2020 election, will he sign that document? Even if he doesn’t win, it would be useful to prepare a forum where diplomats from both sides discuss whether to revise the treaty in any way. Is Trump inclined to put in this preparation? If John Bolton is still his national security adviser this time next year, he can tilt things the other way.

Obama and Medvedev were under pressure to negotiate New START early on in their administrations because the original START—which had been signed by President George H.W. Bush—was about to expire. START had no clause allowing a simple extension, so they negotiated a whole new treaty. It cut the number of strategic weapons—land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, long-range bomber aircraft, and the warheads and bombs that these behemoths carried—by only a modest amount, but at least cuts were made in very specific terms. (Drastic cuts had already occurred, in the years just before and after the end of the Cold War.)

In recent years, the Russians have been replacing their arsenal of nuclear weapons with newer models—but they haven’t been expanding the number of bombers, missiles, or warheads. In other words, they have abided by the terms of New START; even critics, who charge them with cheating on other treaties, acknowledge this fact. If New START is not renewed, those limits will be lifted: The Russians could build more weapons, the United States (and perhaps other nuclear powers) would probably respond, and off we go, once more, into the wild blue yonder.

But New START isn’t just about numbers: It also spells out provisions for exchanges of data and on-site inspections, to verify that both sides are complying with the treaty’s limits. And it established a bilateral commission to discuss disputes, as they arise.

If New START is not renewed, not only would the limits on armaments disappear, but so would the exchanges of data, the inspections, and the forums to hash out differences. These forums are particularly important. During the first couple decades of U.S.-Soviet arms control talks, nuclear weapons were hardly reduced, but the forums served as a place—the only place in the darkest hours of the Cold War—where Soviet and American diplomats could talk about anything at all.

Nonetheless, some Republicans have urged Trump not to extend New START but instead to expand the scope of arms control in the next round of talks, either by including China or by limiting all of Russia’s nuclear arms—those with short and medium range as well as the intercontinental models. Both ideas have their merits, in principle, for the future, but they’re transparent delaying tactics for now. First, China isn’t interested in trilateral nuclear talks with the U.S. and Russia. Second, in terms of strategic nuclear warheads and bombs that are deployed in silos, submarines, and air bases (the types of weapons counted under New START), the United States and Russia each have more than five times as many weapons as China: 1,550 compared with about 280. In three-way talks, would China demand equal levels—either by China building up, or the U.S. and Russia scrapping down? Neither development would be welcome, or allowed, by Washington or Moscow.

As for Russia’s roughly 2,000 shorter-range nukes, Obama mentioned the possibility of including them in a follow-on to New START, but the Russians—even Medvedev—dismissed the idea out of hand. After Vladimir Putin replaced Medvedev, relations fell apart broadly, and the follow-on never happened.

Whatever the merits of these ideas, negotiations to pursue them would take many months to set up and years to play out. By that time, New START would have long expired.

This week, several members on relevant congressional committees wrote a letter to Trump urging him to renew New START, warning that a failure to do so could spark a new and costly nuclear arms race. The disturbing thing about this letter is that it was signed exclusively by Democrats. Arms control used to be a bipartisan issue; it isn’t any longer.

The Senate ratified Obama’s New START by a margin of 71–26, more than the two-thirds needed to ratify a treaty. However, the vote took place in December 2010, after the midterm elections, which the Republicans swept, ousting Democrats from six seats in the Senate, but before the new Congress was sworn in. If the vote had taken place after January 2011, the treaty probably would have been rejected.

Except for the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, there is currently no official bastion of vocal support for nuclear arms control anywhere in Washington. The president, the national security adviser, the secretary of state (who parrots whatever the president says), and the Republican-controlled Senate are all skeptical, if not vocally opposed. These treaties, these mutual restraints—the culmination of a half-century of deliberation and diplomacy—could vanish in a flash.