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National Security as Magical Thinking


Soviet inspector examines a BGM-109G Tomahawk ground launched cruise missile (GLCM) prior to its destruction. By Jose Lopez [Public Domain]
Trump just announced that the United States will be exiting the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which Reagan and Gorbachev signed in 1987. The treaty was a key inflection point in the process that ended the Cold War, so it seems almost fitting that an administration captured by interwar conservative foreign-policy thinking would give it that axe. At one level, it’s hard to argue that the United States is somehow obligated to remain in the INF treaty; Russia has been, at best, pushing the edge of the agreement for the last few years.

But Russia’s behavior is only part of the calculation. In general, this administration would like to develop a larger and more diverse portfolio of nuclear capabilities, including next-generation weaponry. It also has concerns about China. Unconstrained by any arms control agreement, Beijing has deployed a large number of intermediate and short-range conventional ballistic missiles and pointed them at US allies, including Taiwan. North Koreas has its own arsenal. Washington, in turn, has focused on ballistic-missile defenses. Clearly, the Trump administration would prefer to respond with its own intermediate and short-range forces.

Many liberals and moderates believe that scrapping the treaty is, on balance, a bad move. It completely ends constraints on Russia.It seems likely that Moscow would aim additional missiles at Eastern and Central Europe in order to, at a minimum, enhance future attempts at coercive. The United States and NATO can currently deter Russian aggression against NATO member-states through conventional superiority and, if need be, the threat of nuclear mutually assured destruction. This doesn’t suggest a lot of upside to possibly starting an arms race in intermediate- and short-range conventional and nuclear missiles; given that the current balance of power favors the United States, why disrupt it? Indeed, moving away from restraint carries risks of another big escalation in tensions and the risk of miscalculation—especially if the US and Russia find themselves in an action-reaction cycle where Russian deployments force Washington to respond in kind or to otherwise make stronger commitments to reassure NATO allies.

Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said: “This is colossal mistake. Russia gets to violate the treaty and Trump takes the blame.

“I doubt very much that the US will deploy much that would have been prohibited by the treaty. Russia, though, will go gangbusters.”

The Pentagon has been generally supportive of the INF treaty but defense secretary James Mattis warned other Nato ministers earlier this month it would no longer be tenable if Russia did not withdraw its Novator ground-based missile, which the US has argued for nearly four years violates the INF range restrictions.

Nato ministers issued a joint statement saying the INF agreement “has been crucial to Euro-Atlantic security and we remain fully committed to the preservation of this landmark arms control treaty”. But they urged Russia to come clean about the capabilities of its new missile.

So pulling out of the INF treaty carries with it complicated political and military risks. But what about in Asia specifically? If we focus simply on the balance of power in the Pacific, I see some merit in the hardline argument. The INF Treaty binds the US and Russia but not China, and this has led to significant asymmetries. While relations between Moscow and Beijing are pretty good right now, one underlying reason why the Kremlin probably wants expanded medium- and short-range capabilities is to compensate for conventional inferiority in its Far East. Russia cannot defend its border against China with conventional forces. From Washington’s perspective, being able to deploy intermediate-range missiles would provide some military and political benefits, including providing leverage for future arms control with China. Trump referenced this latter benefits in his clumsy, I-don’t-really-understand-what-I’m-talking-about way when he made the announcement.

Right now, I am less concerned with the INF treaty per se then the strong possibility that the Trump administration, now dominated by John Bolton and his merry band of neo-Bircher sovereigntists, is intent on shredding as many treaties as possible—including what remains of the the current international-legal framework for nuclear restraint.

Bolton and the top arms control adviser in the National Security Council (NSC), Tim Morrison, are also opposed to the extension of another major pillar of arms control, the 2010 New Start agreement with Russia, which limited the number of deployed strategic warheads on either side to 1,550. That agreement, signed by Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, then president of Russia, is due to expire in 2021.

“This is the most severe crisis in nuclear arms control since the 1980s,” said Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute. “If the INF treaty collapses, and with the New Start treaty on strategic arms due to expire in 2021, the world could be left without any limits on the nuclear arsenals of nuclear states for the first time since 1972.”

I would not be surprised if the Trump administration, especially if it lasts two terms, resumes nuclear testing. The net effect on the nonproliferation regime—which wasn’t helped by the US reversal of its commitment to the Iran deal—could be devastating.

As bad as the neoconservatives were, its easy to forget that not all neoconservatives are rabidly opposed to international institutions and international law. Many consider existing arrangements problematic to the extent that those institutions and laws serve as shields for autocratic and repressive regimes, but they are not intrinsically hostile to global governance and international institutions. Bolton is extreme. I am not sure it makes sense to even code him as a neoconservative. His worldview more resembles old-school conservative nationalism, but coupled to a commitment to military primacy. The Trumpist-Bolton synthesis is even worse. It is actively hostile to the very idea of constraints on American action—even when those constraints make the world more convivial to American interests and security. It seeks to undermine mechanisms of global governance such that the international system more perfectly resembles a realist anarchy. And it treats American allies, particularly democratic ones, with extreme skepticism, which is likely to undermine Washington’s power and influence in both military and non-military terms.

In other words,  the Trump-Bolton synthesis does not embrace the positive realist principles of prudence and restraint. It favors a major and costly expansions of military capabilities coupled with a more bellicose and belligerent approach to international relations. It envisions a fortress America, but one committed to international power projection. In broad terms, there are two possible outcomes of this approach. Perhaps the United States succeeds in making the rest of the world much more dependent on military tools of statecraft, and thus creates a more conflictual international system in which the great powers need to divert ever-increasing resources towards military capabilities. Or maybe the rest of the world tells the United States to piss off, leaving Washington increasingly isolated and, in relative terms, facing a growing gap when it coms to non-military instruments of power and influence.

None of these outcomes are good for Americans. Old-style conservatives thought that their antipathy toward international entanglements would allow the United States to keep its defense budgets low and prevent a garrison state. The Trump-Bolton synthesis turns this on its head. Indeed, when it comes to enhancing American military security, the Trump-Bolton synthesis relies on magical thinking. It’s not just that nether of these worlds are particularly good for national security or liberty. It’s also that the Trump administration wants the United States to be a military powerhouse while cutting taxes. As I’ve argued before, postwar American military power depended not simply on large military budgets, but in massive investments in infrastructure and human capital. The Trump administration wants to starve those investments and shift them in ways that maximize the ability of private interests—such as the for-profit education sector, private security contractors, construction firms, and the financial sector—to extract rents.

How will the United States maintain, say, the educational achievement, scientific investment, and transportation infrastructure necessary to undergird a robust national defense? “Something something tax cuts something something the power of the market something something privatization.” In other words, it can’t and it won’t.

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