Tit-for-tat conflicts almost always spiral out of control

J. Peter Scoblic

The greatest problem with nuclear war, some strategists noted during the Cold War, was that we had never fought one. As problems go, this was a good one to have. But it meant that our understanding of how an arms race might precipitate nuclear conflict was entirely theoretical.

By now, the lessons of the superpower arms race are clear. As of the late 1970s, the United States and Soviet Union had each deployed some 25,000 nuclear warheads that could be delivered by air, land or sea, with a variety of yields, ranges and trajectories. Despite having arsenals so large and diverse that neither country would survive a nuclear war, each still felt itself uniquely vulnerable. Because of that perceived vulnerability, the United States embarked on a massive “rearmament.” And as a result, Moscow believed that Washington was planning a first strike — a fear that peaked in November 1983, when it nearly mistook a NATO war game as the prelude to an actual attack.

It is hard to imagine wanting to reprise this dangerous period, and yet the United States and Russia seem to be doing just that, embarking on a new arms race complete with (among other things) intermediate-range nuclear weapons of the kind that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev banned because they found them so dangerous. Moves like these increase the risk of confrontation, yet, as former energy secretary Ernest Moniz and former senator Sam Nunn wrote, “Both sides seem willfully blind to the peril.”

Which is why it is serendipitous that President Trump has given us a concise refresher on the folly of tit-for-tat conflicts — by waging a trade war with China. Although trade wars may seem very different from arms races, both are lose-lose situations in which each escalatory step hurts you as much (or more) than your opponent. Because trade wars play out faster, and because their consequences are more immediate and transparent, they make the destructiveness of such spiraling fights obvious. In other words, if the Cold War wasn’t enough to convince you that arms races aren’t winnable, the U.S.-China trade war should.

Trade wars and arms races both depend on interdependence to do their damage. Tariffs, for example, can wound only to the extent that your adversary relies on your country as a market for its products. The dependence in an arms race is a little different, but many actions that one country takes to strengthen its security decrease the security of the other. That is not to say every weapon Russia deploys makes us less safe, but some could. And, from both a political and a psychological standpoint, arms buildups by one side seem to demand a response by the other.

The same dynamic has propelled the trade war with China. For example, on April 3, 2018, Trump imposed a 25 percent tariff on $50 billion of Chinese goods, and just hours later, Beijing retaliated by placing tariffs on $50 billion of U.S. goods. The fight has escalated since. In just the first week of August, Trump announced that he would impose 10 percent tariffs on $300 billion of Chinese imports, to which China responded by stopping purchases of U.S. agricultural products; to which the United States responded by labeling China a currency manipulator. Although Trump claimed in 2018 that the trade war would be “easy to win,” the conflict has dragged on at great cost, with American farmers and retailers declaring bankruptcy, the export market for U.S. goods shrinking by tens of billions of dollars, and the chances of a recession shooting up.

Despite Trump’s claims, imposing tariffs has not improved the U.S. position at China’s expense. Rather, it has hurt Americans by passing costs to consumers, robbing producers of suppliers and markets, and introducing unpredictability, which stymies eco-nomic activity. Similarly, in an arms race, one country’s deployment of more or better nuclear weapons may, ironically, reduce its security by threatening its adversary’s perceived ability to retaliate, and, therefore, undermining the stability of mutual assured destruction. In a crisis, an insecure adversary is more likely to lash out, lest its arsenal be destroyed on the ground.

But if trade wars and nuclear arms races are similar in key ways, the foolishness of trade wars is far easier to see. First, while it takes decades to build up and diversify a nuclear arsenal, many of the “weapons” in a trade war can be fielded with the stroke of a pen. In game theory terms, we experience more iterations of play over a shorter period, and therefore can more readily notice patterns and trends.

Second, trade wars are waged in the open. Arms races may involve concealment and bluster: Countries may hide weapons they have or brag about weapons they don’t, resulting in mis-perceptions that cloud understanding and fuel tension. By contrast, there is no hiding the announcement of tariffs or the imposition of sanctions. And even more-subtle barriers to trade, like obscure regulatory requirements, come to light when executives publicly bemoan obstacles that prevent them from maximizing profits.

Finally, trade wars lead to immediate feedback from economic and political actors. When Trump labeled China a currency manipulator on August 5, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index plunged 3 percent. It bounced back — only to drop 2.6 percent once again when Trump threatened a new round of tariffs on August 23. As of this writing, stocks have regained their value, but the volatility has been dizzying.

The wages of an arms race are far more difficult to figure out, though no less real. It is hard to measure how threatened an opponent truly feels, particularly because that opponent may have a vested interest in not appearing anxious or, by contrast, in playing up the anxiety for public consumption. When the Reagan administration prepared to deploy Pershing II missiles in Europe, the Soviets decried American warmongering. Although the Soviets had reason to be concerned — the missiles could have reached Moscow in 10 minutes, giving leaders almost no time to react — hawks in the United States accused them of hyping the threat to stoke the growing anti-nuclear weapon movement.

That movement had taken time to develop. Despite the Cuban missile crisis, despite the deployment of tens of thousands of warheads, despite the introduction of destabilizing weapons like multiple-warhead missiles, it is telling that feedback from the political environment — such as the million-person anti-nuclear weapon protest held in Central Park in 1982 — was slow to emerge and slower to influence policymakers. By contrast, if Trump doesn’t resolve the conflict with China quickly, the economy will suffer, and his chances of reelection will plummet. Trade wars vividly show us how escalation spirals out of control.

That is why there was no “winning” the Cold War arms race. Nevertheless, Russia and the United States seem determined to embark on another one.

The tit-for-tat dynamic can already be seen in the dispute over the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a Reagan-era agreement that Russia violated in 2017 by deploying a land-based cruise missile. While the Obama administration had applied diplomatic pressure to try to maintain Russian compliance, Trump announced last fall that the United States would withdraw from the pact and develop new weapons in this category. The Russians quickly responded that they would no longer abide by the agreement either, with a Kremlin spokesman adding that Russia would act “to restore balance in this sphere.”

Both sides are also exploring other new weapons and modern-izing old ones. In addition to the $1.2 trillion that President Barack Obama committed to upgrading existing U.S. nuclear forces over 30 years, the Trump administration is also pursuing a new warhead for America’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles and a return to Cold War-era nuclear-tipped, sea-launched cruise missiles. Russia, meanwhile, is working on several new systems, including an undersea nuclear drone and a nuclear-powered cruise missile — one of which apparently exploded during a test in August.

At the same time, the few remaining diplomatic constraints on U.S. and Russian weapons may soon disappear. John Bolton, the now-former national security adviser, has signaled that the administration is unlikely to renew the New START Treaty. That treaty, which is set to expire in February 2021 but which could be extended by five years, caps strategic deployments at 1,550 warheads and gives the United States a detailed picture of Russian nuclear activities through its reporting and inspection regime. President Trump calls it a “bad deal” that is “one-sided.”

The point is not that every weapons system is bad, that every treaty is good, or that the United States should stand idly by while Russia builds up its nuclear arsenal. The point is that, just as trade policy should make us richer, nuclear policy should make us safer — and arms races don’t. They are run on a treadmill. And the only way to win a race on a treadmill is to get off the contraption before you collapse from exhaustion. If the trade war with China can help us see that arms races backfire — without the risk of provoking Armageddon — perhaps it will have been worth the cost.

J. Peter Scoblic, a fellow in the international security program at New America, is the author of “U.S. vs. Them: Conservatism in the Age of Nuclear Terror.” His article is lightly edited from The Washington Post, September 6, 2019, and was published in PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2019.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Trump nuclear arms control plans draw criticism

Amid growing concern about the future of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control efforts, the Trump administration is still evaluating a potential extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and appears to lack a clear plan to achieve a newly announced goal of negotiating more comprehensive agreements with Russia and China.

Administration officials have repeatedly downplayed the risks of the treaty expiring in February 2021 with nothing to replace it. They also have provided few details on how they would persuade Russia to limit broader categories of weapons and China to participate in arms control talks for the first time.

Following a May 14 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Sochi, Russia, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States and Russia “agreed that…we will gather together teams that will begin to work not only on New START and its potential extension, but on a broader range of arms control issues that each of our two nations have.” It remained unclear when such talks would begin and what the Trump administration would be willing to offer as concessions to Russia and China, and whether New START would be extended in the absence of progress on a more comprehensive deal.

New START, which caps deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 warheads and 700 missiles and bombers each, allows the two sides to extend the pact for up to five years until 2026 without requiring U.S. Senate approval. Trump admin-istration officials, notably National Security Advisor John Bolton, have criticized New START because it limits deployed strategic nuclear weapons only.

Several issues would affect the administration’s treaty extension decision, said Andrea Thompson, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 15. They include Russia’s development of new types of strategic weapons systems and modernization of its large stockpile of nonstrategic nuclear weapons, its “record of being a serial violator and selective implementer of the arms control obligations and commitments that it undertakes,” and “China’s lack of transparency regarding the scope and scale of its nuclear modernization program” and unwillingness to discuss nuclear weapons issues with the United States.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the senior Democrat on the committee, said, “Extending New START would be, in my mind, an easy decision. It’s very difficult to understand why the administration would discard the robust constraints, transparency, and verification measures of New START with nothing to replace them.” However, committee Chairman James Risch (R-Idaho) strongly criticized any treaty extension: “Under present circum-stances with [Russia’s] cheating and other things that they do, I’m opposed to extension.”

Russia has repeatedly expressed interest in an extension, but it has raised concerns about U.S. procedures to remove submarine- launched ballistic missile launchers and some B-52 bombers from treaty accountability. “The extension of the New START is not a simple technicality that could be resolved in a couple of weeks,” Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the United States, said on May 6. “Serious issues must first be settled.”

Russia has expressed a willingness to begin a dialogue with the United States on arms control and strategic stability, but it has its own list of concerns about U.S. policies and weapons systems, including missile defense systems, cyberweapons, weapons development in space, and advanced conventional arms. The Trump administration has shown no indication that it would be willing to limit these weapons in an agreement with Russia or China. Even if it were willing to do so, it is highly unlikely an agreement could be reached before New START expires in less than two years.

President Trump told reporters on May 3 that he had already spoken to China about a trilateral nuclear arms control deal and that “they very much would like to be a part of that deal.” Contrarily, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said on May 6 that China “will not take part in any trilateral negotiations on a nuclear disarmament agreement.”

China is estimated to possess about 300 nuclear warheads. In contrast, the United States and Russia possess around 6,500 war-heads each. China has never been a party to any agreement that limits the number or types of its nuclear weaponry.

In a May 6 interview in Finland, Secretary Pompeo acknow-ledged that a trilateral deal involving China and that covers all types of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons might be “too ambitious.” He noted that there are “just a couple years left before New START expires” and that it may be necessary to address the expiration of the treaty on a bilateral basis.

Menendez welcomed the administration’s interest in expanding the scope of arms control but warned that “the limitations and verification measures of New START must remain in place while any such negotiation occurs.”

Democrats and one notable Republican have proposed several pieces of legislation in support of extending New START. On May 9, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the committee’s top Republican, introduced a bill expressing the sense of Congress that New START should be extended by five years unless Russia is determined to be in material breach of the agreement or the treaty is replaced by a pact that contains equal or greater verifiable constraints on Russian nuclear forces.

The legislation also would require several briefings and reports, including an intelligence assessment of how the expiration of New START would affect the size and posture of Russian nuclear forces and the additional intelligence capabilities the United States would need to compensate for the loss of the treaty’s extensive transparency and on-site monitoring provisions.

Opponents of New START have also introduced legislation on the treaty. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a bill on May 13 that would prohibit the use of funding to implement an extension of New START or any successor agreement unless it includes China and covers Russia’s entire inventory of strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) introduced companion legislation in the House.

At the international Primakov Readings summit in Moscow on June 11, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov made the latest call urging President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to adopt a joint declaration reassuring the international community that nuclear warfare was unacceptable. If nuclear weapons were ever used, Lavrov warned, everyone would lose. He said the United States and Soviet Union had previously come to such a conclusion and he could “not understand why this position cannot be reaffirmed under the current conditions.”

Russia and China have both accused President Trump of threatening to spark an “arms race” through his Missile Defense Review released in January. The report called for a global missile defense system that included space-based interceptors, signaling Trump’s unwillingness to support a different measure promoted by Russia and China — an agreement to not weaponize outer space.

– edited from Arms Control Assoc. and Newsweek, June 2019
PeaceMeal, July/August 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Nuclear weapons experts alarmed by new Pentagon ‘war-fighting’ doctrine

The Pentagon believes using nuclear weapons could “create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability,” according to a new nuclear doctrine adopted in June by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Specifically, the use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict.”

The document, titled “Nuclear Operations,” is the first such doctrine paper in 14 years. Arms control experts say it marks a shift in U.S. military thinking toward the idea of fighting and winning a nuclear war, which they believe is a highly dangerous mindset.

At the beginning of a chapter on nuclear planning and targeting, the document quotes a Cold War theorist, Herman Kahn, as saying, “My guess is that nuclear weapons will be used sometime in the next hundred years, but that their use is much more likely to be small and limited than widespread and unconstrained.”

Kahn was a controversial figure. He argued that a nuclear war could be “winnable” and is reported to have provided part of the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove.

The Nuclear Operations document was taken down from the Pentagon website after a week and is now only available through a restricted access electronic library. A spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the document was removed from the publicly accessible Defense Department website “because it was deter-mined that this publication ... should be for official use only.”

Steven Aftergood, who directs the project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, said the new document “is very much conceived as a war-fighting doctrine — not simply a deterrence doctrine, and that’s unsettling.” He pointed out that, as an operational document by the Joint Chiefs rather than a policy documents, its role is to plan for worst-case scenarios. But. Aftergood added, “That kind of thinking itself can be hazardous. It can make that sort of eventuality more likely instead of deterring it.”

Alexandra Bell, a former state department arms control official said, “This seems to be another instance of this administration being both tone-deaf and disorganized.” Bell, now senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, added, “Posting a document about nuclear operations and then promptly deleting it shows a lack of messaging discipline and a lack of strategy. Further, at a time of rising nuclear tensions, casually postulating about the potential upsides of a nuclear attack is obtuse in the extreme.”

The doctrine has been published in the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from two nuclear agreements: the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Program of Action with Iran and the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia. The administration is also skeptical about a third treaty — the New Start Treaty that limits U.S. and Russian forces strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems, which is due to expire in 2021.

The last nuclear operations doctrine, published during the George W. Bush administration in 2005, also caused alarm. It envisaged pre-emptive nuclear strikes and the use of the U.S. nuclear arsenal against all weapons of mass destruction, not just nuclear.

The Obama administration did not publish a nuclear operations doctrine but, in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, sought to downgrade the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. military planning.

– edited from The Guardian (U.K.), June 19, 2019
PeaceMeal, July/August 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)