Why international arms control is an issue even Trump can get behind

Trump, Haley
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
President Donald Trump speaking as U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley looks on at the United Nations Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem during the 73rd U.N. General Assembly on Monday.

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.

Trump also will reinforce his “America first” views, and urge action against the drug trade, nuclear and chemical weapons, they say, without any indication that he will offer new policies.

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.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Tory Koburn on 09/24/2018 - 11:59 am.

    “…Trump could announce that he intends to pick up on some unglamorous work undertaken by many of his predecessors.”

    Regardless of the merit of the argument, anyone who considers this to be even remotely feasible must not be paying much attention.

    This president:

    1) Utterly disdains his predecessors and has committed himself to oppose their work at every turn, regardless of whether they have a D or an R next to their name.

    2) Utterly disdains unglamorous work – if it doesn’t bring immediate headlines, then what’s the point?

    3) Has no interest in the long-term negotiations that arms control agreements require. Case in point, North Korea.

    When he mentioned nuclear weapons as the “biggest problem in the world,” he wasn’t arguing for less of them, he was simply observing Cold War sentiment after his private talk with Putin. He has, in fact, argued that MORE countries should get nuclear weapons – Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Germany. He wants MORE nukes, for us and for everyone else – MAD on steroids. Why are we taking his words at face value when he is quantifiably deranged? And why are we encouraging him to stick his fingers in yet another major global issue when he has a concrete history of mucking things up at every possibility?

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/24/2018 - 01:09 pm.

    This strikes me a semi desperate attempt to pretend we have a somewhat normal president. You do realize he’s trying to extend the arms race into space right?

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/24/2018 - 03:01 pm.

    “Election meddling and disagreements over Ukraine and Syria notwithstanding, talks might improve overall U.S.-Russian relations ever so slightly. ”

    Boy! That’s a lot of “notwithstanding,” Mark!

    And your piece is full of pretend information that entails what Trump and Putin talked about or said in Helsinki (we have no idea; your information must be coming from the Russians) plus what the two Bros talk about in their regular phone conversations (also: information that can only come from the Russians and have not, to my knowledge, been reported in the U.S, press).

    We’d all like world peace; even Miss America wants World Peace. Every year. And fewer nukes.

    But to ask that we entertain an essay full of hype about how Trump and Putin–now Besties–can renegotiate anything that would benefit anyone but the Russians, because Trump is so ignorant of all foreign affairs detail, sounds really really fishy to me.

    I don’t know anyone who trusts Trump alone in a room with Putin. Methinks even Trump knows he shouldn’t be in a room alone with Putin!

  4. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/24/2018 - 05:20 pm.

    It is unrealistic to expect Trump to do anything that would constitute picking up on the work of his predecessors. As Tory Koburn points out, Trump has shown nothing but disdain for anyone who came before him.

    There is another ego-related reason why Trump isn’t going to do much of anything about arms control. Effective arms control has to be a broad, multilateral agreement. No one nation or leader can own it. Trump likes to make deals (or, perhaps, to be seen as a deal maker), and he likes to have his name on those deals. Arms control is not a transactional proposition. A successful agreement is not branded like a trophy, to be crowed about by the person who pushed it through. It’s all very non-Trumpian.

    Of course, a more basic reason that Trump won’t take up arms control is that he lacks the attention span. A meaningful agreement could take months, or, more likely, years to achieve. Trump has the attention span of a dog in a squirrel farm. Focusing on arms control for the amount of time needed to reach an agreement isn’t in his DNA.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/26/2018 - 09:40 am.

    Those Trump cabinet members who have concluded that Trump is an idiot are correct. It’s absurd to assume that an idiot like Trump will find a coherent foreign policy regime of any kind, let alone arms control.

    That leaves us with his foreign policy team and the hope that they can cobble together something that Trump won’t screw up or otherwise sabotage. Problem is, his “team” is populated with guys like Bolton, and the State Department is still a mess. Even if you set Trump aside you’re left with Republican’s who think they “discipline” sovereign nations into accepting US policy rather than negotiate workable treaties. Republicans are convinced that Reagan “won” the Cold War when in fact he just happened to be president when an unsustainable State finally collapsed. Like every other basic Republican policy form tax policy to abortion to gun control, their foreign policy mentality is based on intellectual fraud.

    Reagan for instance could have almost eliminated nuclear weapons, but he refused to do it in order to keep his Star Wars fantasy alive. 30 years and $200 billion later we still don’t have a credible ICMB missile defense, and we’ve trashed several treaties in order to keep a failed program alive.

    The truth is that neither Republican’s or Trump are any match of any kind for Putin, they’ll ether get nothing, or they’ll put us in even greater danger.

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