Donald Trump is “blundering toward nuclear chaos.” That’s the verdict rendered by the organization Global Zero, which received a signal boost on Wednesday from National Security Action, an advocacy group founded by Obama administration alumni Ben Rhodes and Jake Sullivan.
The portrait National Security Action’s Ned Price paints of Trump’s nuclear brinkmanship is a bleak one: The Trump administration has already abrogated bilateral accords such as the Open Skies Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with its nuclear peer, Russia. That the Trump administration might also abandon the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban (CNTB) Treaty only increases the threat this administration represents. “All the while,” Price addd, “the administration and its Congressional allies have secured the deployment of small—or ‘low-yield’–nuclear weapons.” This “lowers the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons” and creates incentives for Moscow and Beijing to reciprocate.
All this does sound rather like a prelude to doomsday, which is likely the point. But maintaining a heightened sense of trepidation around the Trump administration’s approach to nuclear diplomacy and deterrence requires the omission of some details that might otherwise reassure anxious Americans.
First, the administration’s decisions to abandon protocols like Open Skies and the INF Treaty are unlikely to appreciably heighten tensions with Moscow, in part, because the U.S. was the only party observing them.
During the Obama administration, Russia regularly violated the terms of the Open Skies accord by limiting America’s capacity to overfly Russian territory and survey its facilities, assets, and deployments—a fact the State Department complained about in 2015. At the time, Defense Intelligence Agency director Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart told members of Congress that the treaty was “was designed for a different era” and that he was “very concerned about how it is applied today,” though he saved those reservations for a classified setting.
Moreover, the Obama administration publicly accused Moscow of failing to abide by the INF’s obligations “not to possess, produce, or flight-test” medium-range ordnance. The Obama administration repeatedly tried and failed to compel Moscow to comply with the terms of both accords. The Trump administration merely pursued the consequences associated with facts established by their predecessors.
As for the Trump administration’s suggestion that the time has come to pursue some form of nuclear testing, such a course of action could, as Price acknowledges, lead to destabilizing reciprocity from America’s nuclear peer competitors. Price’s solution to the conundrum of covert Russian and Chinese nuclear tests, however, is for this administration to double down on the CNTB because it “allows signatories to investigate precisely such concerns with intrusive, short-notice on-site inspections.” That is wholly inadequate to the scale of the challenge.
Like the U.S., China observes but never ratified the CNTB. What’s more, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CNTBO) insists it cannot verify the Trump administration’s claim that China may be testing weapons despite the prolonged gaps in Chinese data that could confirm such activities. And Russia, which the U.S. believes has not been modernizing its nuclear weapons in a fashion that is consistent with the treaty’s “zero-yield standard,” has also done so in a way that triggered no alarm from the CNTBO.
The Trump administration alleges that both Moscow and Beijing are actively testing low-yield nuclear devices, which slightly undermines National Security Action’s claim that it’s America’s weapons programs that “incentivizes” Russian and Chinese weapons production. I say slightly only because America’s low-yield nuclear-weapons development program long predates the Trump administration.
Barack Obama entered into the presidency nominally beholden to the utopian ideal of “Global Zero,” but it didn’t take him long to recognize his own folly. As nuclear-weapons experts repeatedly warned over the course of Obama’s presidency, America’s aging nuclear arsenal was rapidly approaching the point at which conventional life-extension programs could no longer ensure the functionality of the nation’s warhead stockpile. Furthermore, the facilities that do that work—complexes such as Pantex and Y12—were literally falling apart. If entropy reigned, America’s nuclear deterrent wouldn’t deter anyone for much longer.
Most distressing, a deterrent capability that relied on high-yield atmospheric detonations, which would unleash a humanitarian catastrophe but would not incapacitate either an adversary’s leadership or its nuclear weapons stockpiles, were becoming obsolete. What was needed were newer, modern, “smart atomic bombs.” So that’s precisely what Barack Obama’s administration greenlit.
In 2016, at the start of America’s $1 trillion effort to modernize the nuclear arsenal, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon defended the development of adjustable yield bombs such as the B61 Model 12. Far from making a nuclear exchange more likely, he said these devices “give the president more options than a manned bomber to penetrate air defenses” and, thus, create “more strategic stability.”
Within days of Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Pentagon pressed upon this new administration the need to continue the Obama administration’s approach to nuclear modernization. With fully one-third of the American nuclear stockpile already classified as “low-yield,” the preservation of a “tailored nuclear option for limited use” is designed to frighten adversaries who might not believe the U.S. would ever deploy high-yield weapons even in a retaliatory context. Modernization was strategically smart both then and now. It’s a wonder that the Obama administration’s foreign-policy alumni are now agitating against their own policies.
With some brief historical detours, it has long been American strategic policy to adhere to the notion that a nuclear war can never be won and should never be fought. It is therefore crucial that we have a reliable and credible deterrent that scares the daylights out of any nation that would test America’s resolve to respond to a nuclear provocation in kind. The Obama administration knew that when it was in power. But now, when demagoguery is the order of the day, it seems that hypocrisy is no obstacle.
An earlier version of this post referred to the organization “Global Zero” as “Nuclear Zero.”