When President Trump addresses the General Assembly this week in the U.N.’s annual pageant of international diplomacy, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him frustrate or confuse a number of the world leaders present. But here’s one issue on which Trump could stake out a position that would be widely popular: arms control.
Maybe you remember how things went for Trump in New York last year. In his first such speech as president, he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. Of course, nine months later he was meeting with the country’s leader and proclaiming the danger of a nuclear confrontation over.
This year, Trump is scheduled to speak Tuesday. He also will hold a number of one-on-one meetings with other heads of state, and chair a meeting of the Security Council. Administration officials say Trump will highlight his criticism of Iran, building on his decision to pull out of the Obama administration’s deal to control the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
It’s hard to imagine Trump changing anyone’s mind on trade policy, for instance, or on Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia will strongly support him on Iran. Major European allies, unhappy about renewed sanctions and unilateral U.S. action to undo the nuclear accord, are unlikely to be moved. The president will have the world stage — and largely be wasting his breath.
Instead, Trump could announce that he intends to pick up on some unglamorous work undertaken by many of his predecessors. The U.S. has a willing negotiating partner — a difficult one, for sure — in Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Worsening relations between the United States and Russia are putting at risk two major arms control treaties. As most cold warriors would tell you, just talking on a regular basis, even with little or no progress, can lower the risk of a catastrophic misunderstanding.
One of the treaties, on intermediate-range nuclear arms, was signed three decades ago by President Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. A second, limiting strategic nuclear weapons, was completed in 2010 during the Obama administration.
The 2010 agreement, known as the New START treaty, caps each side’s long-range weapons at a total of 1,550. While that’s a lot of missiles and bombs, it’s thousands fewer than they had at the height of the Cold War. But the treaty is set to expire in three years. After that infamous July summit in Helsinki, Putin said he offered to extend it by five years, but that Russia wants clarification on some U.S. weapons programs.
In order to move forward, Trump would have to reconcile objections within the administration, and what appear to be his own mixed feelings. In a phone conversation with Putin a week after taking office, Trump is widely reported to have dismissed the START treaty as another bad deal negotiated by Obama – without knowing the details. But Trump also has spoken about the need to limit nuclear weapons; in Helsinki he called them “the biggest problem in the world.” Of course, worries about nuclear weapons encompass countries such as North Korea and Iran, but Trump pointed out that the U.S. and Russia still have the vast majority.
His administration says it’s in favor of resuming talks with Russia on overall strategic stability. Approaching its halfway point, the Trump administration still has no official position on whether START should be extended. It’s clear, however, where some administration officials stand. National Security Adviser John Bolton, is on the record as calling it an “execrable” agreement that allowed Russia to rebuild while the U.S. did nothing.
The Reagan-era agreement on medium-range weapons required the two sides to destroy missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The U.S. eliminated 800; the Soviet Union dismantled 1,800. It held for years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the U.S. accused Russia four years ago of modifying a short-range weapons system in a way that violates the treaty, according to a background report published by the Council on Foreign Relations. Russia charges, less plausibly according to many, that some components of U.S. missile defense batteries could be used for offensive purposes, and that some military drones are in effect offensive weapons.
New negotiations on these treaties wouldn’t be quick. Judging from Trump’s approach to his summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, they shouldn’t be. The experts need time to slog through it. Negotiations weren’t easy during the Cold War, either, but after many tortured years, they actually led to agreements.
Election meddling and disagreements over Ukraine and Syria notwithstanding, talks might improve overall U.S.-Russian relations ever so slightly. Verification agreements would give U.S. defense officials a better understanding of what the Russians were up do. And it’s possible that they could save the United States some money. The Arms Control Association says the United States has plans to spend $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years on maintaining and upgrading its nuclear arsenal.
Working with Putin to make the world a safer place and maybe saving serious money in the process. Sounds like Trump’s kind of deal.