The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review states, “Progress in arms control is not an end in and of itself, and depends on the security environment and the participation of willing partners.”1 The skepticism of this statement underscores the current administration’s departure from its predecessor’s strong inclination to maintain existing agreements.
The U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and the threat to suspend and/or withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia are the most significant expressions of its new policy. With regard to chemical weapons, the administration twice launched airstrikes in response to Syrian attacks, whereas the Obama White House granted a reprieve to Damascus after it pledged to relinquish its chemical arsenal. Nonetheless, the Trump administration is attempting to reach a nuclear disarmament pact with North Korea. The contrast between these approaches reflects the particular circumstances of Washington’s bilateral relationship with each of its negotiating partners.
As a candidate, President Trump campaigned vigorously against the nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The administration sought European support for tightening the deal’s restrictions on Iran, but consensus remained elusive. The U.S. ultimately withdrew in May 2018.
There was considerable surprise when the Trump administration used force against Bashar al-Assad after his use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, since Trump had previously criticized humanitarian interventions. The president explained his decision as a response to wrenching images of children suffering from the effects of poison gas, thus seeking to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons and enforce a longstanding global norm.
The INF treaty had been a significant point of contention between the U.S. and Russia during the Obama administration, when it became clear that Russia was building a cruise missile with a range that violated the treaty.2 Hoping to preserve the INF treaty, Obama sought to coax the Russians back into compliance. As recently as February 2018, the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review affirmed the previous administration’s policy. One likely contributor to this reversal was China, which is not a party to the bilateral accord. China’s growing ground-based missile arsenal can challenge the U.S. in the Pacific theater while the INF treaty prohibits the U.S. from building, testing, or deploying ground-based ballistic or cruise missiles globally.
The administration has stated its intention to withdraw from the INF treaty, but has not provided the formal six-month notice that the treaty requires.3 However, on December 4, 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. will suspend its own INF obligations unless Russia comes back into compliance within 60 days.4 The administration will also soon face the different question of whether to renew the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, which entered into force in 2011 and is set to expire in 2021.
With regard to North Korea, Trump initially threatened Kim Jong Un with “fire and fury,”5 yet in June 2018, he met with Kim in Singapore. Since the Singapore summit, Trump has spoken positively of Kim, although negotiations on the North’s denuclearization have made minimal progress.
Notwithstanding these policy changes vis-à-vis the Iranian, Syrian, Russian, and North Korean WMD challenges, the administration appears to be maintaining select elements of past arms control and nonproliferation policies. These include support for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, nuclear deterrence, and robust efforts to promote nuclear security and counter nuclear smuggling.6 The administration is also continuing to focus on the WMD threat from terrorist groups.7
The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, and threatened INF treaty withdrawal, sent a signal to adversaries and allies alike that the U.S. may not keep agreements that others violate in spirit or in letter, or which no longer serve its interests. Rival or rogue states can no longer assume that inertial adherence to arms control or nonproliferation accords will constrain U.S. options in the face of graduated escalation, incremental violations, or significant changes in the threat environment.
Whatever the wisdom of the JCPOA withdrawal from an Iran policy perspective, the signal that it sent can provide U.S. negotiators with valuable leverage with respect to other flawed agreements. However, the U.S. must avoid prematurely withdrawing from those other agreements when national security would be better served by leveraging the credible threat of withdrawal to achieve enhanced terms or compliance.
By withdrawing from the deal, Washington can now adopt a maximum pressure strategy aimed at simultaneously reducing Iran’s nuclear, missile, terrorism, and regional threats, rather than temporarily diminishing the nuclear threat while inadvertently bolstering the others, as was the case with the JCPOA.
While it is too early to judge the success of the Trump administration’s key policy changes in the arms control and nonproliferation arenas, there are some early indicators. So far, Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA has not led Iran to accelerate its nuclear program, an outcome many experts anticipated. Instead, Iran continues to conform to key JCPOA commitments, while European leaders seek to salvage the agreement. Perhaps more importantly, by withdrawing from the deal, Washington can now adopt a maximum pressure strategy aimed at simultaneously reducing Iran’s nuclear, missile, terrorism, and regional threats, rather than temporarily diminishing the nuclear threat while inadvertently bolstering the others, as was the case with the JCPOA. Of course, as the pressure on Iran escalates, the clerical regime may accelerate its nuclear program in response.
The Trump administration’s air strikes on Syria sent a limited, but important, message that there is a price to pay for using chemical weapons. Nonetheless, Assad retains his chemical capabilities and is still in power.
The results of the threatened U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty are not yet known. Experts disagree as to whether the U.S. should, or even effectively could, diversify its missile assets in the Pacific theater as a counter to China’s unconstrained missile force. Alternatively, the U.S. may seek a new agreement with Russia, or both Russia and China, after increasing its diplomatic leverage.
The administration’s engagement with North Korea has been accompanied by a year-long pause in Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests. Yet there are also indications that North Korea’s nuclear production continues unabated while the Kim regime engages in deception over its ballistic missile capabilities and intentions.
Substantial risk remains that North Korea has no real intention of dismantling its nuclear program, but rather expects Washington and Seoul to offer a continual stream of concessions to keep Pyongyang at the table – a gambit that Kim and his father employed repeatedly in the past.
Currently, it is challenging to measure the success the administration has had towards reducing or eliminating the WMD threat from non-state actors. Under the previous administration, some of the most significant attempts to thwart the chemical capabilities of the Islamic State came as part of a larger military campaign.8 However, as noted by Chris Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation,9 success in countering WMD terrorism also inevitably requires close cooperation with foreign governments – as exemplified by the George W. Bush administration’s innovative Proliferation Security Initiative – and various international organizations, including the International Atomic Energy Agency. Such cooperation may be hindered by this administration’s relatively hostile broader posture regarding both traditional allies and international organizations. However, even under the best circumstances, an effective defense against WMD terrorism can be elusive, as the National Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism admits.10
The Trump administration has made a point of challenging flawed agreements, yet it must avoid doing so at the expense of the integrity of the nonproliferation regime or in a manner that cedes previous gains made in this area. It also should remain mindful of the interests of key allies.