Trump's Nonproliferation Policy: Stalled, Muddled or Just Confused?

Trump's Nonproliferation Policy: Stalled, Muddled or Just Confused?

Why you should care

The White House is sending dangerously mixed messages about America’s commitment to halting the spread of nuclear weapons.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

The Trump administration has brought an unprecedented level of confusion and uncertainty to American counter-proliferation policy. Its policies toward nuclear weapons in North Korea, Iran and Russia are marked by contradictions, hesitation and bad timing — ceding influence to both rivals and allies and probably leaving both puzzled about America’s ultimate aims.

Walking away in May from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal set the tone. It was an imperfect deal, to be sure, although its monitoring and verification provisions were more robust than most critics acknowledge. In fact, the UN-related watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, certified again last week that Iran remains in compliance with the terms.

Another main Trump objection, apart from verifiability, was that it covered only nuclear matters and did not constrain Iran’s regional meddling or support for terrorists. True, but successful arms control seldom works that way. With the Soviet Union, for example, the United States made narrowly framed nuclear arms limitation agreements and dealt — successfully, it turned out — with other aspects of Soviet security and human-rights behavior through separate agreements. For example, the 1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, now OSCE) isolated the USSR on many of these issues. Had we insisted on rolling everything together, there would probably not have been Strategic Arms limitation accords with Moscow.

The most effective way to set precedent for nuclear policy with minor powers … is through the example of successful nuclear limitations between the two powers that possess the vast majority of the world’s nuclear weapons.

With North Korea, the Trump-Kim summit in June was underprepared and overhyped, leaving everyone confused about where things stand and what comes next. The North Koreans have not come forth with the required declaration of their program’s details or taken any steps toward denuclearization. Meanwhile, the initiative has passed to South Korean leader Moon Jae-in, who is sending a delegation this week to Pyongyang to prepare for the third summit he will hold with his northern counterpart later this month.

Both the South and North favor a step-by-step approach in which the North gradually earns concessions on trade, aid and diplomatic recognition in return for North Korean steps on disarmament. I know from my own talks with South Korean leaders that they have thought about and planned for this in detail. With this strategy, however, everyone has to be on guard against the North pocketing concessions but holding out on their end of the bargain — a tactic they have perfected over years.

The South may also share the North’s desire for a formal declaration of the end of the Korean War of 1950–53, which, if agreed prematurely, would remove much of the rationale for maintaining a U.S. presence in South Korea.

Meanwhile, U.S. talks with Russia about resuming nuclear arms talks are, regrettably, the caboose on this train. Regrettable because the most effective way to set precedent for nuclear policy with minor powers like Iran and North Korea is through the example of successful nuclear limitations between the two powers that possess the vast majority of the world’s nuclear weapons.

The most recent U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms accord (New START) came into force in 2011 and is set to expire in 2021. The easiest way to keep it alive is for the Russian and U.S. presidents to invoke a clause that automatically extends the accord for five years. Some reports indicate that Russian President Putin is willing to do this, but we still have no idea of the extent to which this was discussed or agreed upon by Trump and Putin in July. National Security Advisor John Bolton has just completed talks with Russian counterparts and says the U.S. may decide among three options: renewing the New START agreement, renegotiating it or falling back to a shorter, simpler agreement from the George W. Bush administration (this agreement had no monitoring or verification provision for the arms limits).

Given the administration’s instinctive dislike of anything President Obama did, the strong temptation will be to try renegotiating the 2011 agreement. It would be smarter, though, to just renew the agreement rather than adding this to the overflowing plate of problems with North Korea and Iran. Besides, as one arms control specialist has warned, failure to extend New START would leave the “world’s two largest nuclear arsenals with no legally binding limits for the first time since 1972.” It’s hard to think of a worse example for North Korea, Iran and other aspiring nuclear powers.

The kindest thing to say about all of this is that U.S. proliferation policy is stalled. Less kind would be to call it a muddle. Pulling out of the Iran agreement alienated allies and other signatories and gave some of them, China and Russia, added leverage and propaganda points. The North Korean situation leaves Asians confused and worried and catapults our South Korean partners, who may not fully share our objectives, into the driver’s seat — perhaps ceding more responsibility to them than they even want. And hesitation with Russia on renewing New START passes on an easy win in the most dangerous area of bilateral competition.

And in the end, it’s useful to remember that these are the world’s most dangerous weapons — just an accident with them can have the most devastating consequences for humanity.

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