January 31, 2019 |

Midterm Assessment: Arms Control & Nonproliferation

January 31, 2019

Midterm Assessment: Arms Control & Nonproliferation

Current Policy

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

S-75 Dvina, a Russian surface-to-air missile.


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

Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an American anti-ballistic missile defense system.


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.

  1. Resurrect cooperation between the executive branch and Congress on arms control and nonproliferation issues. There is considerable precedent for congressional participation in the negotiation of arms control agreements. For example, during the 1980s and 1990s, the Senate Arms Control Observer Group provided a useful official role for senators to join U.S. delegations as they negotiated arms control treaties, including the INF treaty. Today, the Observer Group’s successor – the moribund National Security Working Group – should be reinvigorated.
  2. Enhance nuclear monitoring and verification capabilities. A 2014 report by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board assessed that U.S. government tools are “either inadequate, or more often, do not exist” for such challenges as detecting and monitoring “small nuclear enterprises designed to produce, store, and deploy only a small number of weapons” as well as “undeclared facilities and/or covert operations, such as … acquisition of materials through theft or purchase.”11 The administration should place higher priority on enhancing such capabilities.
  3. Enhance cooperative efforts to detect and disrupt illicit WMD procurement efforts. The United States should develop stronger partnerships between government and industry, expand the Proliferation Security Initiative to include additional countries, encourage countries to impose stronger sentences on convicted WMD traffickers, and remove impediments to transnational cooperation in prosecuting WMD traffickers.
  4. Ensure that the new National Biodefense Strategy is adequately resourced and robustly implemented. Biotechnology advances make biological weapons increasingly available and attractive to terrorists.
  5. Promote further adherence to and implementation of the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation. This is especially important for regions where missile proliferation continues unconstrained.
  6. Remain open to extending the New START treaty for five years. It seems likely that the U.S. will, on balance, benefit from extending the New START treaty when it expires in 2021. Because New START limits the number of Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and includes various verification and transparency measures, extension will likely further strategic stability, including by bounding U.S.-Russian competition in this arena. However, an openness to extension should not preclude consideration of other options, such as renegotiation, and continued assessment of the agreement’s value to U.S. national security in light of changes in the threat environment, including Russian development of weapons that may not be captured by New START limits.
  7. Promote nonproliferation in the Middle East.12 The Trump administration should work to bridge the U.S.-Europe gap regarding the JCPOA and its future. In nuclear cooperation agreements with Middle East countries, the U.S. and Europe should continue to pursue the adoption of provisions that preclude indigenous enrichment or reprocessing capabilities. It should build on warming relations between Israel and the Arab world to promote regional cooperation on nonproliferation issues, including preventing acquisition and use of chemical and biological weapons, as well as confidence and security building measures regarding missiles. Finally, it should encourage and assist the enhancement of Middle Eastern capacity and will to prevent non-state actors from acquiring nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons and their means of delivery.


Iran Iran Missiles Iran Nuclear North Korea Russia Syria