War Stories

This Is Not a Good Time to Start a New Arms Race

And there’s no good reason for one.

Two aircraft operators carry a missile.
Members of the U.S. aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman place a missile on an F18 fighting jet on the eastern Mediterranean Sea on May 8, 2018.
Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

As if the world weren’t messy and dangerous enough, President Donald Trump’s arms control negotiator said Thursday that he is prepared—even revved up—to launch an infinitely expensive nuclear arms race with Russia and China.

“The president has made clear that we have a tried-and-true practice here,” the special envoy, Marshall Billingslea, told a Washington think tank on Thursday. “We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion.” He added that “we sure would like to avoid it,” but “if we have to, we will.”

As a prelude to this campaign, Trump announced the same day that he was pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, an arms control accord signed in 1992—a fitting sequel to his earlier withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed in 1987. An even more vital deal, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), signed by Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, is set to expire in February.

It would be one thing to threaten to set off another arms race if Trump wanted to extend New START and the Russians didn’t. But in fact, it’s the other way around: Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he’s keen to extend the treaty, while Trump has not said so. In fact, Billingslea has said that the U.S. won’t sign an extension unless China joins the treaty—a strange demand, since China has roughly one-tenth the number of long-range nuclear weapons as Russia or the United States and no desire to build many more. In fact, looping the Chinese into a treaty calling for equality among its signatories might spur them to do so.

A few things need to be said about Billingslea’s jaw-gaping remark about the ease of winning arms races and spending adversaries into oblivion. First, actually, it’s not easy at all. The United States spent trillions of dollars throughout the Cold War, keeping up with real or imaginary threats from Soviet nuclear forces. We won the Cold War, but not by “winning” the arms race. The Soviet political system was exhausted by many factors: a stagnant economy, an overextended empire, the failed war in Afghanistan. Reagan’s first-term plan to build a “Star Wars” missile defense system—which many Russians were touchingly naïve enough to believe might work—played some role, but his second-term pivot to pursuing détente and arms treaties with Gorbachev, the new reformist Kremlin leader, played the decisive role.

Second, with the COVID-19 crisis draining our treasury and hobbling our economy for years to come, it’s perhaps not the best time to boast of the leverage we gain from our endless supply of money. The Pentagon already plans to spend $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal—and that’s by simply replacing existing weapons with new ones while staying within New START’s limits on the number of missiles, bombers, and warheads. There is growing pressure in Congress to cut defense spending generally, in the face of more urgent threats; there is likely less appetite still for expanding the nuclear arsenal.

Third, our financial constraints might be mere inconveniences if we needed to expand our arsenal, but in fact no officer or official in a position of power is arguing that we need more long-range nuclear weapons. Some claim we need new or different weapons, but nobody argues that the 1,550 bombs and warheads permitted by New START are insufficient for the mission.

In short, it is senseless to rocket into a new arms race, regardless of whether we can “win” it, when we can avoid one by the simple act of extending New START. Billingslea and others complain that Russia has cheated on most arms treaties. However, no one seriously argues that the country has violated New START—the most important treaty, as it limits the number of weapons that the U.S. and Russia can use to attack each other.

New START also contains clauses that allow for inspections as well as bilateral forums to discuss suspected violations so each side can verify that the other is abiding by the treaty. If New START evaporates, so do those clauses. And we’ll be back in the world that existed before the first strategic arms treaties were signed in 1972. Before then, each side’s military would prepare for “worst-case scenarios” to justify its arguments to build more weapons. Arms control treaties allow each side to put boundaries on pessimistic intelligence projections—and thus boundaries on the hawks’ voracious appetites.

The Open Skies Treaty isn’t as vital as New START, but it’s a useful accord, and scrapping it makes no sense. Signed in 1992 by the U.S., Russia, and 32 other countries, including 27 of the 30 NATO nations (Albania and Montenegro are the only holdouts), it allows signatories to fly unarmed reconnaissance planes over one another’s territory to monitor military activities.

More than 800 flights have occurred since the treaty went into effect in 2002. Ukraine has invoked it several times to monitor Russian troop movements along its eastern borders. The few times Russia has refused permission, the U.S. delegation has allowed Ukrainians to come along on American overflights, which Russia has not blocked.

The point of the treaty—which was first proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower back in 1955 (the Soviets rejected the idea)—is to build confidence among nations, and it has served its purpose well.

Critics contend that Russia has exploited the Open Skies Treaty to take aerial reconnaissance photos of U.S. critical infrastructure, which it might later subject to a cyberattack. There are three problems with this argument. First, nations can take picture of whatever they want under Open Skies, but they also have to share the data with the other nations (as they have done). Second, if the Russians wanted to gather photos of U.S. infrastructure targets, they could do so just as easily from commercially available satellite photos.

Finally, while the United States doesn’t really need Open Skies to gather intelligence, as our satellites are plentiful and sophisticated enough on their own, our European allies do rely on the overflights, and they have not pulled out of the treaty.

In fact, senior American military officers like the treaty too. In October, when reports spread that Trump might sign a memo on his desk withdrawing from the accord, U.S. Strategic Command, which operates the overflights (and also controls the nuclear arsenal), tweeted that the command “supports #OpenSkies Treaty by flying peaceful, unarmed flights over 30+ participating countries to observe military forces and activities. This helps build confidence & increase transparency.”

There was, in fact, little partisan pressure to trash Open Skies until John Bolton became Trump’s national security adviser. Bolton has long been on record as opposing the very concept of international treaties—even international law—as a matter of principle. One of his aides, Tim Morrison, was the only official pushing to pull out of Open Skies, and he kept doing so even after Bolton was dismissed. He wrote the memo for Trump. Now an analyst at the conservative Hudson Institute, Morrison also wrote the op-ed in Friday’s New York Times defending the pullout—without noting that he was the one who’d proposed it.

Morrison was once a staffer for Sen. Jon Kyl, who in 2010, as the Republican whip, pressured President Barack Obama to boost spending on nuclear weapons by tens of billions of dollars in exchange for supporting New START—then voted against the treaty anyway. I once asked a former aide to Kyl (not Morrison) for an explanation. The aide replied, “He just doesn’t like arms control.”

Billingslea, Trump’s arms control negotiator who is proposing a new arms race, is of the same stripe. He once worked as an aide to Jesse Helms, who, as the top Republican (and, in some years, chairman) of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, battled against every arms control treaty that came before Congress in the final two decades of the 20th century.

In short, we are being ramrodded into an unnecessary nuclear arms race by Cold War ideologues who improbably still occupy positions of influence, abetted by a president who doesn’t much like treaties either and Cabinet secretaries who have no principles and are inclined to go along with whatever the boss says. (The memo on withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty landed on Trump’s desk without any prior deliberations by the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or any other body.)

One bit of good news on Open Skies: This year’s defense budget requires Trump to give Congress 120 days’ notice before pulling out of that treaty. If he pulls out before then, the relevant chairs of congressional committees can declare that his move was illegal. So if a new president takes the oath of office in January, he can resume the overflights as if nothing had taken place.