Magazine | March 11, 2019, Issue

Deterrence 101

Undated image of North Korean Hwasong-12 long-range ballistic missile test launch (KCNA/via Reuters)
There is peril in the Left’s approach to arms control

Last December, Elizabeth Warren launched a preemptive strike on President Trump’s expected decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The agreement, signed in 1987 between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, forbade ground-based missiles with ranges of approximately 300 to 3,500 miles. Russia has been violating it since at least 2014.

In a letter to Trump signed by 25 other Democratic senators, including Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris, Warren said American withdrawal would make the world a more dangerous place. “Your administration’s efforts to double down on new, unnecessary nuclear weapons while scrapping mutually beneficial treaties risks the United States sliding into another arms race with Russia and erodes U.S. nonproliferation around the world,” the senators wrote. Trump disagrees. He announced on February 1 that the United States would vacate the treaty in six months.

Warren has a funny understanding of cause and effect. In her view, bilateral treaties are sources of international stability rather than codifications of al­ready existing balances of power. Her criticisms are further evidence that the arms-control mindset has returned. Warren would tie the United States down with paper commitments at the very moment it requires flexibility against challenges from its adversaries. She and her allies grievously misunderstand the concept of deterrence: raising the potential cost of action to the point where hostile states are persuaded that the risk isn’t worth it. Trump should educate them.

He can start by pointing out the absurdity of Jeff Merkley’s “Prevention of Arms Race Act of 2018.” This bill, co-sponsored by Warren, Gillibrand, and Sanders would prohibit the purchase or deployment of short- and intermediate-range ground-based missiles and ex­press the sense of the Senate that the United States should continue to abide by the terms of the INF Treaty. Nothing would make Beijing and Moscow happier than for the United States to remain committed to an agreement that Beijing is not party to and that Moscow holds in contempt. Remaining in INF prevents us from checking the Chinese cruise-missile threat by deploying intermediate-range missiles to our Asian allies, while also signaling to Moscow that it can violate treaties without paying a price.

“We are at a disadvantage with regard to China today in the sense that China has ground-based ballistic missiles that threaten our basing in the western Pacific and our ships,” Admiral Harry Harris, now our ambassador to South Korea, told Congress last year. “We have no ground-based capability that can threaten China because of, among other things, our rigid adherence, and rightfully so, to the treaty that we signed on to, the INF Treaty.” The Merkley bill leaves us vulnerable.

It simply does not matter to arms-controllers whether Russia is in compliance or if the treaty does not include China. Agreements exist not so much to curb bad behavior overseas as to rein in hawks at home. “Is the security of the world actually improved by Russia having absolutely zero constraints over the ability to produce intermediate-range nuclear missiles?” asks Alexandra Bell of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “The answer to that is no.”

Bell is right — international security is not improved by an unconstrained Russia. And yet Bell would have us remain in the agreement under the assumption that Moscow would respond more favorably to diplomatic overtures rather than to a strong deterrent. What, then, is the true brake on Russian malfeasance: a charter the Kremlin has already broken, or the deterrent effect of U.S. conventional, nuclear, and technological superiority?

Writing in Bloomberg Businessweek, journalist Peter Coy also concedes that Russia is up to no good. “Trump is right,” he says, “that Putin is the main bad actor.” But, he adds, Russian violations are no reason to back out of our commitments. “The trouble with a peace-through-strength strategy, though, is that neither Russia nor China is willing to cede nuclear superiority to the U.S., so all the U.S. gets from pulling out of the treaty, instead of trying to rescue it, is a fresh arms race.”

Well. The arms race is on whether America stays or leaves. For the last several years, Russia and China have lapped us while we have been stuck at the starting block. What we get from leaving the treaty is the chance to catch up. Nor is it clear what, exactly, the United States gains from trying to rescue a treaty Russia and China are uninterested in. Another piece of paper? A sense of virtue? Neither matters much in the emerging world of great-power competition.

The inability to comprehend the autocrats’ intentions, the willingness to embrace standards applicable only to us, and the refusal to face the reality that deterrence relies on superiority of arms and the possibility that you might use them — all these progressive traits apply to other areas of nuclear policy. Consider the Democrats’ calls for no first use.

Several nuclear powers have stated publicly that they would use such weapons only in response to an attack. The United States and her NATO allies have not. That was partly because the Soviet Union held the advantage in conventional arms and the West’s nuclear deterrent held the Red Army in check. But it is also because there are moments that call for ambiguity and even preemption — emergencies and contingencies that are terrifying but also absolutely necessary to contemplate.

Warren and several 2020 candidates have signed on to two bills that would dedicate America to no first use. When he introduced his bill in 2017, Repre­sentative Adam Smith (D., Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement, “We have prevented the use of nuclear weapons in war for 72 years. We must continue working to ensure they will not be employed by taking steps to increase strategic stability, stem the incentives for nuclear proliferation, and reduce the likelihood that these weapons will be used irresponsibly in a conflict.”

Noble ends. But nullifying part of our deterrent by pledging we would strike only after we’ve been nuked is not a means to “increase strategic stability.” Instead it would create instability by handing rival nuclear powers the advantage. That is why China may soon drop the commitment to no first use it has held since it joined the nuclear club in 1964. What a tragic irony if China adopts strategic ambiguity precisely when America abandons it.

“Now that the tables have turned and Russia is the one lacking conventional military strength,” writes Bloomberg’s Coy, “it’s Putin who could launch nukes first — or even just threaten to launch them — as a way to back an enemy down.” Precisely. Why, then, increase his advantage by publicly forswearing our ability to respond?

The arms-controllers hoping to conscript the memory of President Reagan to their cause misread history. It is true that Reagan embraced nuclear diplomacy in his second term. But that was after a first term in which he ramped up military spending both conventional and nuclear, deployed intermediate-range missiles to Europe over global protests, and called for anti-ballistic- missile defenses.

“Arms-control negotiation can often help to improve stability,” Reagan told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 1980. “But not when negotiations are one-sided. And they have been one-sided and will continue to be so if we lack steadiness and determination in keeping up our defense.” And abide by rules our rivals refuse to honor.

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