Trump runs dangerous and chaotic approach toward nuclear weapons

Trump runs dangerous and chaotic approach toward nuclear weapons
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The decision to abruptly withdraw United States forces from Syria is one of the most recent dangerous illustrations of the flawed foreign policy of President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers release defense bill with parental leave-for-Space-Force deal House Democrats expected to unveil articles of impeachment Tuesday Houston police chief excoriates McConnell, Cornyn and Cruz on gun violence MORE and the chaos it has generated abroad. As a diplomat who served for nearly 40 years and under seven presidents, I am aware of how these impulsive and undisciplined actions have left allies reeling with American interests hobbled. His approach toward nuclear weapons and arms control is similar, but with even graver possible consequences.

His nuclear agenda reflects the same pattern of alliance mismanagement, American unreliability, and chaotic decision making. Instead of bailing on bilateral and multilateral arms control efforts, the United States should preserve remaining treaties like the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the observation regime offered by the Open Skies Treaty, which promote our interests abroad and avoid introducing destabilizing and unnecessary nuclear weapons in a heated international competition. 

The Iran nuclear deal was the first nonproliferation agreement to be axed by Trump, followed by the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. By recklessly withdrawing from the successful limits imposed on the Iranian nuclear program, Trump undercut our reliability with some of our closest allies and raised global tensions. Withdrawing from the latter agreement rather than continuing efforts to resolve violations by Moscow has shifted the onus away from Russia while removing constraints. The insecurity from withdrawal of these agreements is exacerbated by the prospect of blowing up the other key foundations of our arms control architecture.

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Next may be the Open Skies Treaty. It is a useful transparency regime which was instituted by the United States and 33 other nations. The agreement allows these nations to conduct observation flyovers of the territories of each of the signatories, providing critical insight into military deployments and possible military buildups. While some might argue that new technology makes such flyovers unnecessary, that overlooks the advantage offered by the framework. It is difficult to ignore evidence when all states have access to the same intelligence. Leaving this deal would end those benefits, poorly serve Ukraine, and send yet another message to our allies and adversaries of our diplomatic unsteadiness.

Such a counterproductive step would be massively compounded if the United States does not extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which caps American and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons and is set to expire in early 2021. The predictability, transparency, and access it provides is unparalleled. Its regime of notifications, information exchange, and onsite inspections has been lauded on both sides of the aisle and by numerous military and civilian officials. In addition to losing this level of certainty on Russian strategic nuclear weapons, the United States could face an expensive and destabilizing arms race, beyond the major $1 trillion nuclear program already authorized by President Obama.

In fact, the Trump administration has called for the development of a new “low yield” submarine launched ballistic missile deemed more “usable” for the military. Critics argue it would be difficult to distinguish from existing high yield variants and would increase the risk of nuclear miscalculation. The House has included a provision in the annual defense authorization bill earlier this year that prohibits the deployment of such a submarine weapon. As the conference negotiations continue, the Senate ought to recognize the risks of this unnecessary and destabilizing addition to our already massive nuclear arsenal and ensure it remains in the final bill.

Russia and China indeed pose risks, and we must seek to have serious strategic dialogues with both. But as we pursue such talks, we should use them to build on existing agreements, most notably the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and not scrap historical agreements in favor of a complex new effort to include additional weapons and actors such as China. Such a comprehensive deal, which the Trump administration says it is pursuing, would take years to negotiate. Russia does not believe there is time to negotiate a new arms control agreement prior to the expiration of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and China has emphatically rejected joining such a trilateral endeavor. Any potential negotiations are further complicated by the fact that the State Department has dumped its under secretary and assistant secretary in charge of arms control policy.

When it comes to international agreements, ignoring legislative, military, and civilian expert advice and picking fights with American allies leads to chaos, frayed alliances, and increased instability, as we have witnessed in Syria, Ukraine, Turkey, and across the world. The United States simply cannot afford to let that happen when it comes to nuclear weapons.

Laura Kennedy is a member of the board of directors of Foreign Policy for America. She served as United States permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, was a diplomat for the United States Mission to International Organizations, and served as the deputy assistant secretary for European Affairs with the Department of State.