I’m not one of those people who look back on the Cold War with nostalgia. Whatever our current problems, they’re relatively mild to the threat of global nuclear war which used to seriously worry people back in the day. ‘When I were young’, as the saying goes, two massive armed blocs – NATO and the Warsaw Pact – stood face to face, ready to roll at a moment’s notice, while much of the developing world was wracked with proxy wars. It wasn’t a good time. But the very danger of it did have one positive effect – it concentrated minds and made the more sensible of them realize that ‘jaw, jaw is better than war, war’ and that it would really be to everybody’s benefit if agreement was reached to limit the upwards spiral of the arms race.
The result, beginning in the era of détente and continuing up to collapse of the Soviet Union, and even a little bit beyond, was the creation of a system of arms control, the purpose of which was to make Armageddon just a little less likely. Some of this arms control system was multilateral – the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty being examples – but much was bilateral between the Soviet Union and the United States. This included a veritable acronym soup of treaties – ABM, SALT, START, SORT, and so on – which dealt with nuclear and conventional weapons, and also in some cases introduced so-called ‘confidence building measures’, designed not just to limit weapons but to increase trust on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
In the past 20 years, this system has disintegrated. In the case of the CFE and START II treaties, it was the Russians who walked away. More often, however, it has been the Americans. Indeed, it was the USA which kickstarted the process by withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, prompting Russia to withdraw from START II in retaliation. Efforts have been made to revitalize arms control, as with the 2002 SORT and the 2011 New START (I won’t bother you with what all these acronyms mean), but under the Trump administration it’s become clear that United States is no longer interested. Last year, the USA renounced the INF Treaty, and yesterday it declared its intention to withdraw also from the Open Skies Treaty. All that now remains of the Cold War edifice is New START which is due to expire in 2021. While Russia wants to renew New START, it seems that the USA doesn’t. There’s a good chance that by the end of next year there’ll be nothing left at all.
The American renunciation of the Open Skies Treaty, which allows signatories to fly over each others’ territory taking photographs, is a little odd. After all, the United States benefits from being able to fly spy planes over Russia. The official explanation is that the Russians are breaking the treaty, by limiting American flights over Kaliningrad district and Georgia (the latter complaint being related to Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which affects what are considered Georgia’s borders). But these are relatively minor technical issues and if the Americans really valued the treaty, they’d be willing to find a way around the problem. The same applies to American complaints about alleged Russian violations of the INF Treaty, which could have been discussed and mediated rather than treated as an opportunity to walk away. One gains a strong impression that the Americans want to get to rid of arms control, and these are just excuses to let it do so.
To be fair, arms control always promised rather more than it delivered. The SALT 1 and SALT II treaties, for instance, sought to limit the number of nuclear missiles the USA and USSR could have, but each side got around it by just putting more warheads on each missile (the famous MIRVs – Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles). A deeper problem, though, was that there was always a strong constituency in the United States which objected to arms control on principle. The core of the issue is that arms control allegedly favours the weaker party, as it prevents the stronger side from acquiring the dominant position it would obtain if it left unrestrained. For all the talk of the gravity of the Soviet threat, Cold War Americans at heart kind of knew that they were the stronger party economically speaking. If there was to be arms race, they were always going to be able to out-produce the Soviets. Arms control, therefore, was seen as favouring the Soviets.
Arms control limits one’s freedom of action. In the context of the Cold War, there was perhaps some logic in self-limiting, but once the USA became the global hegemon, this logic disappeared. The USA thus refused to come on board such post-Cold War arms control projects such as the Ottawa Land Mines Treaty. At the same time, post-9/11 the USA adopted a national security strategy which dictated that it would deter any would be ‘peer competitors’ by so far outstripping them in military capabilities that they would give up before even starting. This would allow it to preserve its hegemony ad infinitum. And in this context, anything which restrains the USA in any way serves no purpose.
Adding to the suspicion of arms control was a myth of how the Cold War came to an end. According to this myth, what finished the Soviet Union off was the rearmament of the United States undertaken by President Ronald Reagan, and in particular his advocacy of the Strategic Defence Initiative (the infamous ‘Star War’s program). Soviet efforts to keep up with the Americans supposedly bankrupted the USSR, and thereby brought the Cold War to a victorious conclusion.
Despite the fact that this is a rather simplistic version of Cold War history, it apparently exerts a strong hold on parts of the American security establishment, whose mode of thinking is roughly as follows: Arms control is bad, as it restrains the United States, while an arms race is nothing to be worried about, because if anybody is foolish enough to challenge the USA to such a race, they’ll be crushed by America’s overwhelming economic superiority.
Which brings us to Marshall Billingslea, recently appointed as US Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control, i.e. Donald Trump’s point man on arms control issues. As CNN reports, ‘Billingslea had previously been nominated to be under secretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights at the State Department but his confirmation process stalled after Democrats and advocacy groups raised concerns about his views on torture while working for President George W. Bush’. These concerns included allegations that Billingslea, ‘encouraged the use of methods that amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.’ Anyway, on Thursday, in his new arms control role, Billingslea announced that the USA was prepared to spend Russia and China into ‘oblivion’ in order to win a new nuclear arms race. As he said:
The president has made clear that we have a tried and true practice here. We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion. If we have to, we will but we sure would like to avoid it.
This is one of those moments when you wonder if the world has gone absolutely stark raving bonkers. A new nuclear arms race, ‘oblivion’ – just what we need. You might imagine that post-COVID crisis, ramping up spending on nuclear weapons wouldn’t exactly be priority number one. You might imagine instead that this would be a good time to reconsider just how useful all that military spending is, and whether there aren’t perhaps better things to be using our resources on. But no! Nuclear arms race it is.
Not only is this an absurd priority, but it is also completely misreads the current state of play in the world and draws on a historical parallel (Billingslea’s ‘tried and true practice’, by which he no doubt means the Cold War) which is completely unlike today. Back in the 1980s, the Soviet Union was already far poorer than the United States, and it was getting poorer by the day as its economic model came under increasing stress. The same is true today of neither Russia (which has hundreds of billions of dollars in the bank) nor China, whose GDP is the largest in the world and growing (pre-COVID) at a rate far faster than that of the United States. America, meanwhile, is wading in a massive swamp of debt, and sinking further and further into it by the day. The idea that the USA can outspend China ‘into oblivion’ is laughable.
To date, China has avoided seeking nuclear parity with the USA, and has kept its nuclear forces at a much lower level than its main geopolitical rival. Keen to prevent China from changing its mind, the USA has proposed a new system of tri-lateral American-Russian-Chinese arms control. This is a welcome step, but the Chinese response is that since its nuclear forces are so much smaller than those of America and Russia, any such system would have to involve massive cuts by the Russians and Americans. Billingslea’s statement would suggest that this isn’t what the Americans have in mind. A news arms race may still be avoided. Let us hope so. But if it does come, I’m not as confident as Billingslea that this time the Americans will win.