What Trump Should Do on Nonproliferation

Vladimir Putin with Hassan Rouhani. Kremlin.ru

The United States will have to chart a new course in its interactions with both Russia and Iran.

When we set out to draft this article on arms control priorities for the next U.S. administration, it was just before the elections, and we – like many – were operating under the assumption that it would likely be a Clinton administration. As such, the piece was geared to an assessment of current trends, highlighting where we thought the new emphases should be placed by another Democratic administration. Now that we know it will be a Trump administration, there are greater unknowns regarding the president-elect’s foreign policy direction in general, and certainly regarding arms control and nonproliferation. We have nevertheless kept the article as it was, only making some adjustments that relate specifically to themes that were raised by Donald Trump during the campaign.

Arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation efforts that have been pursued over the past fifty years have ranged from efforts focused on weapons of mass destruction themselves and the need to eliminate them across-the-board, to initiatives that recognize the presence of these weapons and attempt instead to focus in the first place on reducing tensions and enhancing stability among states that possess them. In considering these two arms control “ideal types” – namely, focus on the weapons or on the states that possess them – current global developments seem to dictate an arms control approach that favors greater emphasis on states and their relationships. This is due in the main to new and potentially destabilizing U.S.-Russian tensions that have developed over the past decade, and that are already having a negative impact on their bilateral arms control efforts. Continued superpower tensions and conflicting global interests will also impact their ability to effectively confront proliferation challenges in the Middle East in the post-Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) period.

As the two superpowers move away from accommodation, and toward bilateral dynamics that in some respects have become more reminiscent of the Cold War years, the nuclear disarmament agenda that President Obama introduced at the start of his first administration in April 2009 – and the Global Zero movement that it energized – is looking increasingly detached from realities on the ground. The much more recent UN First Committee Resolution calling for negotiations on a new global treaty banning nuclear weapons (late October 2016) is likely to meet a similar fate. Not surprisingly, both Russia and the United States – with approximately 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons at their disposal – opposed the UN resolution, but their agreement that nuclear weapons cannot be eliminated from today's world only brings into sharper relief the more pressing arms control challenges that emanate from their problematic relationship of late.

Since the 1960s, the United States and Russia have concluded very important bilateral arms control agreements that have introduced order into their relationship, and begun a process of reducing their vast arsenals. But in recent years, not only has progress in this direction been stemmed, but some past agreements are faltering in light of suspected Russian violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) from 1987, and the more recent Russian withdrawal from the U.S.-Russian Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), signed in 2000 and ratified in 2009. Moreover, the United States is increasingly looking toward China as well in the nuclear realm, with an understanding that arms control efforts at the global level will have to be pursued in a multipolar framework, adding a measure of complexity to arms control efforts. China is also central to U.S. policy regarding North Korea's nuclear arsenal. Any intent to significantly ramp up sanctions on North Korea to pressure it to denuclearize will likely be met with strong Chinese opposition.

The need for tension reduction in superpower relations gained a measure of urgency over the past five years in light of the ongoing dispute over US/NATO plans for missile defense systems in Europe, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, and current developments in Syria. In fact, Russia has explicitly linked its position on nonproliferation cooperation with the United States to developments in the political sphere. The next U.S. administration will have to address these worrying trends in a serious manner. What happens at the global level will have profound implications for pursuing arms control in the Middle East as well; indeed, Russia’s growing role in this region has been occurring in parallel to the projection of non-involvement in the Middle East characteristic of the Obama Administration. If the United States loses ground to Russia in the global and regional arenas, Syria’s chemical profile and Iran’s regional status and accompanying nuclear ambitions will be increasingly facilitated by the cover that is granted to these states by Russia. In order to reverse these trends, the United States will have to divert from the approach taken by the previous administration, and chart a new course in its interactions with both Russia and Iran. While President-elect Trump has spoken about repairing relations with Russia, this must be done carefully, with an eye to maintaining American interests.