Nuclear Treaties Are Good

The 1950s and the 1980s were decades of nuclear fear. The arms race of the 1950s culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, after which institutions and procedures were put in place to cut back some of the causes of that fear. The Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty put nuclear tests underground, which made them more difficult and expensive and began to slow down the arms race. Better communications between American and Soviet leaders were developed. Treaties to limit the numbers of nuclear weapons followed.

By 1986, President Ronald Reagan and First Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev agreed that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. To that end, they put in place the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987 to remove a whole class of weapon that accounted for much of the fear in the 1980s. And then the Soviet Union crashed, and we believed that such concerns had ended.

One more part of the current Republican agenda to turn back the clock is an attempt to bring back the circumstances of the 1950s and 1980s. Since the mid-1990s, the Republican Party has opposed all treaties on the basis that a treaty gives up some United States sovereignty. That is true; ratification of a treaty means that the treaty, negotiated with other nations, becomes part of US laws. Like other laws, a treaty is a tradeoff. The INF Treaty, for example, trades our freedom to build and emplace intermediate-range missiles for Russia’s promise not to do the same.

That seems like a good deal. The frightening thing about the intermediate-range missiles in Europe in the 1980s was that if they were used, there would be no warning time. So the rational thing for either side to do would be to shoot them all off at once at the slightest warning. Instant nuclear war. The little piece of sovereignty that the United States gave up with the INF Treaty was setting up an instant nuclear war.

The INF Treaty remains in force, but the United States has claimed for a couple of years that Russia is violating it by developing a missile that is prohibited under the treaty. The United States has not been forthcoming about exactly which aspect of which missile violates the treaty. Wonks have been trying to figure it out. Here is a long and very technical summary of those attempts. The bottom line is that the violation seems not to be much of a military threat, but the issues need to be ironed out.

Now comes to the argument Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, the man who got his fellow senators together on a letter to the Iranian leadership in an attempt to scuttle the negotiations to hold Iran’s nuclear program in check. Senator Cotton has introduced legislation to withdraw the United States from the INF Treaty and to develop and spread more intermediate-range missiles. As a complement to that measure, Republican Senator Mike Rogers of Alabama would fund that proliferation with money taken from nonproliferation programs. Makes sense, I guess, if you think that putting the United States in the position of being the party responsible for wrecking the treaty in response to a Russian violation is a good thing.

Since the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union, then Russia, put into place a network of treaties to limit nuclear weapons and their use. Those treaties have decreased the real danger and the fear in response to those dangers. Republicans in the Senate have voted for those treaties when presented by Republican presidents and sometimes by Democratic presidents. But resistance to treaties has grown in recent years.

The Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty came into force in 1972. President George W. Bush withdrew from the treaty in 2001. That action was a culmination of a fantasy that was sold to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. That fantasy kept Reagan from agreeing with Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986 to eliminate nuclear weapons by the year 2000. The fantasy lives on today in the form of missile defense, another test of which recently failed. That’s after 30 years of very expensive research.

The Soviets considered, and Vladimir Putin still considers, the ABM Treaty essential to international stability. The justification was that countering ballistic missiles would put one side in a position for a first strike at the other. More recently, Russia is concerned that ABM emplacements around its periphery could be used in a first strike against it. That makes Russia touchier about other issues and more likely to take aggressive actions of its own, including the development of the INF-violating missile. If the United States withdrew from the INF Treaty, Russia would see that as one more move toward an arms race and worse.

That makes Cotton’s idea dumb, of course, but that sort of thing doesn’t stop him or his Republican colleagues.

There’s something else about this story. If you looked at the link about the details of Russia’s INF violation, you can see that there’s a lot to keep track of: observations of Russian tests and statements, consideration of the words of the treaty, and figuring out what to do about it. A group of people in the State Department have been working on this for a few years now, in consultation with the Defense Department and the intelligence organizations. They are part of the reason that Rex Tillerson’s “downsizing” of State is dangerous. It seems entirely possible that neither Tillerson nor Trump understand this work.

Treaties also bring benefits beyond keeping the nukes under control. The Pershing missiles came back from Europe under the INF Treaty, and the military needed a way to get rid of all the propellant they contained. Burning it in the open air would produce nitrogen oxides, against clean air regulations. I had a project for destruction of hazardous waste that looked like it might help, and the Air Force funded it. The people at the Hercules facility in Utah who were receiving the missiles told me about the Soviets who came to witness the missiles being destroyed. Americans were in Russia for the same purpose.

The man I was talking to showed the Russians around to orient them to everyday life in America. When he took them to the supermarker, they balked.

“Please take us to the place where you shop.”

“This is where I shop, where a lot of people shop.”

It turned out that the Russians found it difficult to believe that the plenty available in the supermarket was normal and thought that it was a mockup built to overawe them with American economic power. They slowly learned that no deception was involved. Likewise, Americans in Russia were disabused of some of their preconceptions about Russia. These human interactions are important in keeping our perspective and in keeping the peace.


Photo: Pershing II missiles at McGregor Range, Fort Bliss.


Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.