On the eve of the second Trump-Kim nuclear summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, questions are swirling as to what the United States will achieve towards its goal of ridding the Hermit Kingdom of nuclear weapons. They are part of a raft of important inquiries regarding the U.S. nuclear posture: On February 1, the Trump administration issued a notice of withdrawal from the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty with Russia. Last week, news resurfaced that the United States is negotiating with Saudi Arabia for the sale of civilian nuclear technology. As has often been the case but seems particularly true now, U.S. foreign policy is being strained through the sieve of U.S. domestic politics. Will an embattled President look for a PR win in Hanoi, regardless of the long-term strategic consequences? We should hope not. The decisions being made in the nuclear arena affect more than one general election. They concern the tools of self-annihilation. Robert Oppenheimer’s “destroyer of worlds.” They will affect our relationships with allies, nation state treaty behavior, and the survival of the nuclear non-proliferation regime itself. In other words, these are decisions that will shape the world for generations.
The INF Departure: Letting the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good
The INF, signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, banned U.S. and Soviet land-based cruise and ballistic missiles of an “intermediate” range – 500 to 5500 kilometers (313 to 3,438 miles). The USSR had these missiles pointed at Europe, and the U.S. had these missiles positioned in Europe and pointed at the USSR. The treaty was a joint solution to what had become known, according to The New York Times, as the “hair trigger” for nuclear war due to the missiles’ short flight times (just ten minutes).
The United States’ notice of withdrawal was not surprising to even casual observers of the Trump administration. The President campaigned on dual platforms of sovereignty and unilateralism, the border wall being the grand symbol of his world view. His inauguration speech eschewed “defending other nations’ borders” and “subsidiz[ing] the armies of other countries.” Since taking office, he has exited the Iran Nuclear Deal, NAFTA, the Paris Climate Accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, UNESCO, the UN Human Rights Commission, and the UN Relief and Works Agency. He has threatened NATO weekly.
It was also not a surprise to members of the non-proliferation community. The Obama Administration declared in July 2014 that Russia was in violation of the INF Treaty. These violations continue to this day (despite Russian denials and Russian counter-allegations of U.S. noncompliance). The question for the Obama administration, and now the Trump administration, was whether some level of noncompliance within the constraints of the treaty was preferable to exiting the deal, leaving none.
The Obama administration took a watch and wait approach, determining it was better to stay in and negotiate from within the treaty. The Trump administration took a different tack, giving its formal notice of withdrawal on February 1. The notice triggered a six-month clock after which the agreement would terminate. Upon learning of the U.S. intention to withdraw, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russia was suspending its observance of the treaty.
We’ve seen this movie before. The Iran Nuclear deal, while imperfect, and covering only nuclear technology (and not the missiles that might deliver them or Iran’s belligerent activity in the region), had stymied any ambitions Iran might have had regarding a nuclear weapons program. In exchange for sanctions relief, Iran disabled two thirds of its uranium enrichment centrifuges, destroyed its plutonium production reactor by filling it with concrete, and exported 98% of its enriched uranium. It also signed on to extensive (albeit with long-lead time) monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Wishing to deliver on a campaign promise, and with the view that a deal that covered only nukes was no good, the Trump administration withdrew. There, as here, the administration decided to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The Iran Deal wasn’t a panacea. But it constrained Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. It was the culmination of twelve years of negotiations and its signatories included, incredibly, Russia and China. The Iran Deal applied pressure and constraint to change behavior. The INF, even imperfectly executed, did the same. Even as Russia violated the treaty, European allies actually threatened by the intermediate-range weapons it covered preferred that the agreement remain intact.
The Obama administration declared in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that “Russia is not an enemy, and is increasingly a partner”. Clearly, much has changed in nine years. The 2018 NPR explained that Russia is circumventing the global non-proliferation regime by developing and building weapons not covered by any international agreement. With Russia in violation of existing nuclear treaties and developing weapons not covered by treaties, the question for U.S. leaders is how best to constrain Russian nuclear ambitions. Is exiting the INF – first – the solution? Perhaps not.
First, it could remove an important touch point for communications on nuclear issues. As the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review stated, “The United States and Russia have in the past maintained strategic dialogues to manage nuclear competition and nuclear risks.” Second, it gave Putin a public relations win. He can say, truthfully, that America walked away first. Our exit feeds into Putin’s necessary “war” against the U.S. He is, after all, an autocrat sustained in part by convincing his people that they are threatened by the West. Third, no treaty means a loss of constraint. Although Russia was violating the INF, it was still somewhat bound by it. And its imperfect compliance gave Russia the veneer of being a responsible, respectable, nation state actor. There is always value in that, even (or perhaps especially) for despotic regimes.
Tit for Tat in Hanoi?
The veneer of respectability is an asset that North Korean President Kim Jong-Un, and his father and grandfather before him, long sought. Prior administrations had refused to allow any meeting with the sitting American President without the precondition of a commitment to complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization.
President Trump bucked that trend and lent American credence to Kim’s regime by meeting with him in Singapore in June of 2018. The second summit this week in Hanoi will reveal what steps North Korea is willing to take towards denuclearization and what our contribution to North Korea’s respectability will cost them (and us).
Understanding that he is unlikely to walk away from Hanoi with a clear and verifiable commitment from North Korea to dismantle its weapons, missiles, and enrichment capabilities, the President stated this week that he was not in a hurry for denuclearization so long as there was no more testing. It is essential, however, that the United States obtains at least minimal concessions from Kim. These might include a test ban, a full arsenal accounting, or an agreement to dismantle its intercontinental ballistic missiles, removing the threat to the homeland from North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. These concessions are particularly important if President Trump agrees to a North Korean peace treaty, which North Korea badly wants. This agreement would legally bring an end to the 1950-53 war, and would remove the rationale for the presence of U.N. and U.S. troops in the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. alliance is very popular in South Korea, providing security and stability in a relatively tough neighborhood. It also provides an important strategic foothold to the U.S. in the region.
The U.S. Role in Nuclear Proliferation: Cui Bono?
As the United States seeks to limit nuclear capabilities in Asia, it may be taking steps towards proliferation by negotiating the sale of civilian nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, this is troubling. First and foremost, although purportedly seeking nuclear technology for power generation, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has stated in no uncertain terms that he will build nuclear weapons if Iran builds them. Second, and as has been explored extensively elsewhere, a middle east “Marshall Plan” has been swirling around the Trump transition and administration for some years now. The brainchild of IP3, a group advised by former national Security Advisor General Michael Flynn, the plan originally included the construction of 40 nuclear power plants and uranium enrichment facilities in the Kingdom. It is troubling that the group spearheading it from inside and outside government, including but not limited to Trump friend and inaugural committee head Tom Barrack, stand to gain personally from the sale of the technology. And that advocates of the plan have sought to circumvent strictly controlled government channels and protocols for nuclear technology transfer.
But there is a counterpoint. If not us, then who? An argument can be made that a transfer of nuclear technology from the United States, with concomitant agreements from the Saudis that the use will be solely for civilian use is surely preferable to the same transfer from Russia or China Pakistan, who stand ready to sell to the Saudis without any limitations.
What is the Trump Nuclear Doctrine?
There is much to unpack here. But the overriding theme is that the Trump administration’s nuclear posture is a departure from the anti-proliferation, conservative approach of its predecessors. Historically, America has hewn close to the belief that international agreements with both allies and foes create lines of communication, reporting structures, and that they work generally, if imperfectly, to constrain unwanted behavior. The U.S. has also been tough with rogue nuclear nations, and kept a tight lid on transferring nuclear technology without sufficient guarantees or inspection regimes. Historically, most nations are unwilling to give up nuclear weapons once they acquire them. And civilian nuclear technology can be harnessed to develop a weapons program.
In the end, a world with more nuclear weapons (an estimated 14,485 according to the Federation of American Scientists) is not in America’s best interests. This is an “America First” position to trump them all.