As a self-proclaimed “student of history
,” President Donald Trump should be aware that arms control agreements — especially with rival powers — have been the result of careful negotiations and a healthy dose of trust that the commitments enshrined in agreements will be kept.
His reported desire
to negotiate a grand arms control bargain with China and Russia, two nuclear powers, should be balanced by a realistic assessment of what nuclear weapons mean to these countries, how they perceive US credibility and why their motivation for working with us may be at an all-time low.
While Trump’s team considers trying to leverage negotiations over renewing the New START Treaty for a grand bargain with Russia and China, they should remind the President that bigger is not necessarily better — especially if going big means going home empty-handed.
The President seems to reinvent history more often than he makes it, and his own track record on keeping US commitments will impact the cost-benefit analysis of leaders who consider sitting down to negotiate with the United States.
His history of withdrawing from international agreements, along with his threats to leave other alliances and organizations like NATO
and the WTO
, sends a pretty clear signal that Trump isn’t concerned with keeping America’s word. That doesn’t set the stage for anyone — let alone leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping — to wholeheartedly engage with him.
Trump has publicly said that he acts on “hunches,”
— and those hunches have cemented his reputation as an unpredictable and untrustworthy leader, who changes his mind on a dime, no matter the repercussions.
We’re on our back foot
The United States would benefit from a perception that we retain significant influence on the global stage, both in terms of our nuclear capabilities, as well as our ability to project power and to lead. While we continue to enhance our nuclear capabilities, Russia and China are doing the same — and Putin has already broadcast that he has capabilities that we currently do not
And though the Trump administration has cited
the President’s decision to engage North Korea as an example of why we should trust that he could get an all-encompassing arms deal with Russia and China, the White House should realize that using North Korea as an example has the opposite effect today — given that negotiations with North Korea have stalled, if not frozen altogether. Meanwhile, Putin is aggressively re-inserting himself by suggesting broadening talks
beyond the US and North Korea to include more countries. In doing so, he’s positioning himself as mediator-in-chief despite his obvious bias toward North Korea.
It’s public knowledge that we have not succeeded in getting Kim to agree to get rid of his nuclear weapons. And if we can’t convince an illegally nuclearized North Korea to even freeze its weapons program while it’s under pressure from sanctions, it’s obvious to everyone (except maybe the President) that we will not be able to convince Russia and China to agree to give up their crown jewels.
Putin and Xi likely view Trump as a showman who can’t seal the deal when it comes to nuclear negotiations, so they are unlikely to think the US has any leverage heading into any renewed talks with them.
They don’t want you back
An all-encompassing arms control agreement with China and Russia would be a historic achievement, but that would require a motivation to negotiate with us first. Arms control negotiations with the former Soviet Union were successful because both parties were open to making trade-offs in exchange for increased security and an end to costly arms races.
While a grand bargain with Russia and China would be a positive step for our security and global non-proliferation, this time around it is highly unlikely that either China or Russia want the US like the US wants them. Both powers likely see more benefit in continuing to proliferate than they do in negotiating new deals with us.
For starters, Russia’s focused on making the US look bad in the agreements it currently is still a party to. Putin, true to form, is accusing
the United States of failing to keep commitments under existing arms control agreements, which doesn’t presage a Russian willingness to negotiate new ones.
Plus, bringing China into the fold would be a herculean task, even if Trump had a more positive track record negotiating with Xi. China has already said it won’t negotiate with countries that have much larger arsenals, and it possesses less than one-tenth
the nuclear weapons that Russia and the US have. And unless China joined a pact as a junior partner, the disparity means either the US and Russia would have to make drastic cuts, or allow China to amass large numbers of nuclear weapons.
Trump has not listened to his intelligence community’s assessments when it doesn’t fit with his personal agenda. If he did, he would read their analysis
that China will continue to expand and diversify its weapons of mass destruction capabilities as it continues its multi-year effort to modernize its nuclear arsenal. The chance Trump can convince China to abandon those plans is slim, given the current context — the Chinese are wary of our nuclear capabilities while highly aware of our inability to negotiate agreements in good faith.
Arms control agreements are critical infrastructure for US national security. Not only have they resulted in the inventorying of weapons stockpiles, they’ve also led to the elimination of entire classes of weapons and ongoing, routine verification processes to ensure compliance. As Trump tears up agreements and favors going for bigger, better agreements, he’s incurring security costs for the American people.
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And when Trump strikes out with North Korea, he should remember that quality over quantity matters in arms control. Resetting his objectives with Kim or improving the terms of our existing agreements with Russia, for example, could set the stage for a broader deal with China at some point down the road. While that may not fit with his political agenda and the 2020 election cycle, realism is a necessary precondition for arms control negotiations. As a student of history, he should understand that.