The New Age of Nuclear Confrontation Will Not End Well

Alexyz3d/iStock, via Getty Images Plus
Alexyz3d/iStock, via Getty Images Plus

The globe’s nuclear safety net is fraying badly. Dangers of nuclear confrontations are growing not only in Europe, with decisions by the presidents of both nuclear superpowers, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, to withdraw from a treaty banning intermediate-range missiles; they are suddenly rising, too, in Asia, where India and Pakistan — both nuclear powers — have carried out conventional airstrikes across the Kashmir divide. Elsewhere in Asia, negotiations between Mr. Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to begin a denuclearization process have abruptly ended.

The thickest, weight-bearing strands of this safety net are treaties that have been cast aside without being replaced. With diplomacy sidelined, policymakers are left with nuclear threats to deter competitors. But deterrence rests on the underlying possibility of the use of nuclear weapons; otherwise, they would cease to deter. This can lead to tragic miscalculations. Treaties, by contrast, muffle and reduce threats. So “strengthening” deterrence without treaties and diplomacy is dangerous; it’s a recipe for threatening your way into tight corners, as India and Pakistan have again shown.

Hope to find an alternative to deterrence springs eternal. Some strategies seek escape through abolition of nuclear arms or the missiles that could deliver them. Others aim for victory rather than deterrence, by putting a protective missile defense shield in space.

Those brands of escapism invite failure and heighten nuclear dangers, while the combination of deterrence and diplomacy has a proven record. One of the great ironies of the Cold War is that the acceptance of mutual vulnerability backstopped three decades of nuclear arms control and, eventually, deep cuts in the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States.

But now, killing treaties has become another form of escapism. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the George W. Bush administration announced America’s withdrawal from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty signed between the two superpowers in 1972. Mr. Putin’s response was to walk away from a 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that prohibited land-based missiles from carrying multiple warheads, or MIRVs. Eliminating these missiles was a long-sought goal of arms control. Now Russia is deploying MIRVed missiles in the worst possible way — with easily targeted, slow-to-use liquid-fueled missiles based in silos — conditions that could provoke a launching at the first suspicion of an attack, even if unverified, for fear that they would be destroyed.

In August, Moscow and Washington seem set to leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 — the treaty that broke the back of the Cold War nuclear arms race. Mr. Trump has announced America’s withdrawal without seeking to negotiate remedies to Russian violations. In his view, nothing less than destroying the offending Russian missiles would do. But now, Mr. Putin is free to deploy more of them.

Next up is “New Start,” the sole surviving Russian-American treaty that limits longer-range missiles. It could be extended for another five years, but Mr. Trump and his national security adviser, John Bolton, have neither the diplomatic skills nor apparently an interest in extending its terms or negotiating better ones. On top of this, Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolton have championed new missile defense plans to protect every American city from any missiles from any origin.

The problem with such plans is that ground-based missile defense interceptors remain woefully unable to do this — they don’t have enough time to catch up to their targets. The only theoretical hope to protect American cities lies in space-based interceptors. But that pursuit, like President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, is most likely to again fail for technical, financial and political reasons. If the United States deploys interceptors in space, Russia and China will probably pursue countermeasures in the form of space mines that could trail American space-based interceptors, at a small fraction of the cost. In other words, the hair trigger of terrestrial nuclear warfare would simply be duplicated in space.

How did we manage to survive the seven harrowing decades since Hiroshima and Nagasaki without the battlefield use of nuclear weapons? Deterrence alone didn’t produce this result; the combination of deterrence and diplomacy did. This safety net was the greatest unacknowledged achievement during the Cold War. It now has very little load-bearing capacity left.

The champions of jettisoning treaties have no sensible strategy or diplomatic road map to replace the nuclear safety net they are cutting. They rely on muscle flexing, dictation and unilateralism, which are mere postures, not strategy. This will not end well. Russia and China have the means to counter an America that seeks to escape deterrence and denigrate diplomacy. Nuclear dangers will rise as a result.

When the executive branch loses its moorings, it’s up to Congress to steady the ship of state. Avoiding a new arms race will be difficult but not impossible. Mr. Putin knows he would lose it because America has superior technology and Russia’s economy is in bad shape. China’s strategy has been to avoid overspending on nuclear weapons while pursuing other means of negating American power, including with space and cyber warfare. Building up American nuclear capacity is not an effective counter to either of those.

Instead, Congress could choose to reduce nuclear excess through the power of the purse. Ordinarily, the job of orchestrating restraint is best left to the executive branch, and besides, Congress doesn’t do nuance very well. But temporizing actions are probably the most we can do until there is a change in government, and stabilizing matters over the next two years will be hard to do. Still, a new arms race isn’t foreordained — yet — and with enough common sense, we can avoid one.

The more Mr. Trump flails, Mr. Bolton tears down and Mr. Putin sows fear and broadcasts threats, the more Capitol Hill is obliged to step up. The nuclear safety net that previous generations bequeathed to us is in desperate need of repair. For the time being, there’s nowhere else to turn but Congress.

Michael Krepon is a co-founder of the Stimson Center, a Washington-based policy research institute.

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