Foreign Policy

Trump can boost national security, own legacy with Russian arms deal


President Trump’s freewheeling instinct may not always make for great policy — and likely makes for sleepless nights for Press Secretary Sean Spicer — but it does show the president’s fondness to shun deeply held orthodoxies. 

The same Republican Party that criticized the Obama administration for what it saw as a botched reset with Russia relations in 2009 now has as its leader a president who is open to a reboot of the reset.  

{mosads}President Trump has yet to articulate what exactly would be included in a “deal” with Russia. The new president did hint in an interview that he might consider relieving sanctions on Moscow in exchange for its embrace of nuclear arms control negotiations. 



But “Getting to Yes” on a comprehensive package of non-like issues is not likely in the cards. Moscow will not deliver a mea culpa for its interference in the 2016 presidential election and is likewise unlikely to withdraw from (much less own up to) its military presence and equipment in the Donbas region of Ukraine. 

However, the Trump administration can do as his predecessors have done — find space for a win-win agreement that reduces their nuclear weapons footprint.  Negotiating on this narrower set of like issues — for which there is decades of cooperation — protects the president from having to forgive or to forget Russia’s worst offenses.

One such offense, Russia’s violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), will remain an irritant, but it need not stall progress in other areas. For instance, the United States and Russia are due to meet the central limits of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) at President Trump’s one-year mark in February 2018. 

While the President reportedly lampooned New START in his first call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, extending the treaty’s on-site inspections and data exchanges regime for an additional five years would earn him praise from arms control advocates and Russia hawks in Congress alike.  

Additionally, the president could propose using New START’s data exchanges for each side to voluntarily report on the number and location of their non-strategic nuclear weapons stocks. Nervous NATO Allies that live on Russia’s periphery would welcome such a move in what would be a first step to negotiations on their elimination. 

Finally, the United States and Russia could announce a freeze on the development of the costly next generation Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)— the Russian RS-28 and the U.S. Minuteman III replacement — both of which are slotted to come online by 2030. 

A reciprocal U.S.-Russian move on ICBMs would boost the chance for talks on deeper cuts below New START levels and would free up funds for other defense priorities.   

These modest, low-risk steps are in the president’s interest. First, President Trump’s openness to negotiations would likely attract support from some of his harshest critics. If past is prologue, President Trump can count on Democrats in Congress to stay true to their unfailing support of nuclear arms control. 

Likewise, European capitals that have been rattled by the president’s (at best) lukewarm view of NATO would view a robust arms control dialogue with Russia favorably. After all, many of the threats from Moscow are directed against Europe, as are its INF Treaty-offending ground-launched cruise missiles. 

Additionally, NATO allies that host U.S. nuclear weapons on their soil could also use these negotiations to weaken the pull of the “ ban movement,” the one hundred plus countries that support a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons.

Second, negotiations with Russia on strategic (and non-strategic) nuclear weapons offer President Trump a chance for a much-coveted victory on the international stage. 

After all, a major critique from Secretary Clinton in the 2016 election was that Donald Trump “could not be trusted” to have his finger on the “nuclear button”— particularly as the decision to use nuclear weapons rests alone with the president. 

Past presidents have recounted the chilling briefing they are provided by the Commander of Strategic Command (STRATCOM) on the U.S. nuclear war plan. Not surprisingly, two of the more revered presidents of the nuclear era are remembered for how they dealt with the most powerful weapon ever created.

It was President Kennedy’s insistence on a diplomatic track over the 13 fateful days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 that helped avert a nuclear cataclysm with the Soviet Union.

Months after the crisis, Kennedy joined with his one-time belligerent, Russian President Nikita Khruschev, to sign the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) — the leading edge in a series U.S.-Russia bilateral arms control treaties which halted the nuclear arms race.  

A generation later, it was President Reagan and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev who signed the INF and START Treaties, turning what was thought to be a failed outcome from their 1986 Summit in Reykjavik into a seminal foreign policy achievement for both leaders.  

President Trump may discover, as his predecessors did, that cooperation on bilateral arms control will fail to transform Russia’s overall behavior. What President Trump can learn from Kennedy and Reagan, though, is that it is possible to burnish a legacy by spending political capital on reducing nuclear risks.

In making such an investment, President Trump can best deliver on his pledge to “Make America Safe Again.”


Blake Narendra served in the Obama administration as a special adviser in the U.S. State Department’s Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Bureau and previously at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. His views are his own.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Donald Trump Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty New START Nuclear weapons Russia–United States relations Soviet Union–United States relations START I Vladimir Putin

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