Fumbling the nuclear football: is Trump blundering to arms control chaos?

Posted: 28th May 2020

Fumbling the nuclear football: is Trump blundering to arms control chaos?

The president believes he alone can negotiate away nuclear weapons and win a Nobel prize – but he has quit three treaties and gutted his administration of experts

Julian Borger in Washington

Sun 24 May 2020 10.30 BSTLast modified on Sun 24 May 2020 13.31 BST

In this photo taken from undated footage distributed by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service an intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a truck-mounted launcher somewhere in Russia
 In this photo taken from undated footage distributed by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, an intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a truck-mounted launcher somewhere in Russia. Photograph: AP

The Trump administration signaled this week that it was ready to get back in the business of nuclear arms control. A newly appointed envoy, Marshall Billingslea, made his first public remarks to announce talks with Russia are about to resume.

“We have concrete ideas for our next interaction, and we’re finalizing the details as we speak,” Billingslea said.

The fact that this relaunch came on the same day that the US was pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty (OST) – the third withdrawal from an arms control agreement under the Trump presidency – underlined the contradictions at the heart of the administration’s approach towards nuclear weapons.

According to those who have worked for him on the issue, Trump is preoccupied with the existential threat of nuclear war, and resolved that he alone can conjure a grand arms control bargain that would save the planet – and win him the Nobel prize.

But at the same time, he is clearly thrilled by the destructive power that the US arsenal gives him, boasting about the size of his nuclear button, and a mystery “super duper” missile he this week claimed the US had up its sleeve.

Administration officials have been left to try to confect a coherent-sounding policy out of such contradictory impulses – so far without success.

Marshall Billingslea
 Marshall Billingslea. Photograph: Hussein Malla/AP

“He believes only he has what it takes to make the big deal, if only everyone else – all the experts – would get out of his way,” a former senior official said. “But he just has no idea about how to make it happen.”

Billingslea, the new envoy, is not an arms control specialist. He previously served as the undersecretary for terrorist financing at the US Treasury and was nominated last year to the top human rights job at the state department – but that foundered amid controversy over his involvement in the post 9/11 torture programme . The arms control envoy job did not require Senate confirmation.

In his maiden speech as envoy, Billingslea made clear that if there were to be a new arms race, the US would win.

“We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said in a videoconference organised by the conservative Hudson Institute thinktank on Thursday. It was a statement of bravado as the US plunged into recession owing about $7tn in foreign debt, $1tn to China.

Billingslea argued Trump would succeed through his mastery of the art of the deal.

“The president has a long and successful career as a negotiator, and he’s a master at developing and using leverage,” he said, showing an early instinct for what it takes to keep your job in this administration.

So far, however, Trump has failed to negotiate a single arms control agreement. His flamboyant summitry with Kim Jong-un produced nothing, and the North Korean nuclear weapons programme has continued unabated. Meanwhile the president has taken the US out of three arms control agreements, leaving them dead, dying or maimed.

Donald Trumps three meetings with Kim Jong-un have produced nuclear arms control agreement
 Donald Trump’s three meetings with Kim Jong-un have produced nuclear arms control agreement. Photograph: Kcna Kcna/Reuters

He walked out of the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018, and the following year withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which had kept nuclear missiles out of Europe since the cold war. Then on Thursday, he confirmed the US was leaving the OST, agreed in 1992 as a means of building transparency and trust between Russia and the west through observation overflights of each other’s territory.

That may not be the end of Trump’s arms control demolition. The Senate never ratified the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban treaty, which – partly as a result – has yet to come into force. But the US has signed it and observes a voluntary moratorium on nuclear tests.

Hawks in the administration, however, want a renunciation. At a high-level White House meeting last week, the suggestion was raised that the US carry out its first underground nuclear test since 1992, according to former officials. The proposal was resisted by the state and energy departments. A senior administration official told the Washington Post however the proposal is “very much an ongoing conversation.”

The only arms control agreement still in effect is the 2010 New Start treaty, which limits US and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 each. It is due to expire in February but it can be extended for another five years. The Trump administration has not taken a position on whether it wants an extension, however.

“There’ll be plenty of time to look at the full range of options related to that treaty,” Billingslea said. At the same time he made clear he viewed New Start as being inadequate, criticising its verification requirements, its exclusion of non-strategic, shorter-range weapons – and, most importantly, the fact that it does not include China.

The Trump administration’s arms control policy has been stuck for nearly three years on its insistence that China be involved in any new treaty. Beijing has so far refused to be drawn into negotiations which it believes are the responsibility of the US and Russia, who together possess more than 90% of the world’s stockpile of nearly 14,000 warheads. The Federation of American Scientists estimates China has 320 warheads, which are stockpiled, not deployed.

“The administration continues to stall,” the Democratic senator Chris Van Hollen told the Guardian. “The best way to describe their position is that it’s under review. And the problem of course is this has been under review for a very long time now and the clock is ticking.”

By the accounts of those who have worked for him on the issue, the president remains convinced that he can somehow work out a deal if he was able to speak face-to-face with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

It is a long-held belief. In the 1980s he claimed he could bring the cold war to an end if he was given an hour alone with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Once installed in office himself, he regaled aides with tales of what he might have achieved with the Soviet Union’s last leader.

“He would sometimes claim to have met with Gorbachev, or had been going to meet with him – all with this goal of sitting him down to talk about nuclear weapons and claiming he could learn all he needed to know about nuclear weapons in 90 minutes as he already knew a lot from being the nephew of a guy in MIT,” said a former senior official.

Mikhail Gorbachev with Ronald Reagan In the 1980s Donald Trump claimed that in one hour with Gorbachev he could end the cold war
 Mikhail Gorbachev with Ronald Reagan. In the 1980s Donald Trump claimed that in one hour with Gorbachev he could end the cold war. Photograph: Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

The “guy in MIT” was his uncle John, an electrical engineer and physicist noted for his work on X-ray technology. Trump frequently credits him with opening his eyes to the ever-imminent threat of nuclear weapons.

Trump has brought up the subject unprompted in discussions with foreign leaders, such as with the former UK prime minister Theresa May during a state visit to London in June 2019.

“He told May the number one existential threat is still nuclear weapons, and not climate change or any of these other issues that all these other people were raising,” said a former official.

US officials first raised the idea of including China in New Start with their Russian counterparts at talks held in Helsinki in September 2017. But the Russians showed little enthusiasm.

When the proposal was put directly to Chinese officials they rejected it outright.

“I raised it when we were in New York, I raised it when we were in Beijing, and raised it at every opportunity. But we got no traction,” said Andrea Thompson, former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs. “They were not interested in having a discussion.”

In the face of such adamant refusal, there was no agreed plan within the administration on how to proceed. 

Arms control advocates in the administration believe that the insistence on China’s inclusion was originally pushed by Trump’s third national security adviser, John Bolton, a lifelong opponent of arms control treaties, and his like-minded aide, Tim Morrison, as a means of killing off New Start.

Morrison adamantly denies the “poison pill” accusation, and insists that the president fully supported the position that arms control was meaningless without China.

“He believes that arms control does not currently reflect the threats that exist,” he told the Guardian. “If arms control is important, you can’t not include China … Do we wait to include them in arms control until they get 800 nuclear weapons? … Why would we continue to wait to include them in arms control? It’s silly.”

Morrison attributed the failure to make progress on the absence of a chief negotiator, – which he blamed on deliberate bureaucratic inertia.

“The president needs to understand that there are those around him who would be happy to see him run out of time to get a bigger agreement, and put him in a binary position of either to extend or not extend New Start,” he said.

Disarmament advocates worry that even if Billingslea re-establishes regular contacts with Moscow, the US no longer has the diplomatic muscle to pursue substantive, complex arms negotiations because of the steady loss of experienced staff responsible for such negotiations.

“It’s not obvious they have a kind of a serious team in place to try and make that happen,” a western diplomat said.

“Three years after entering office, the Trump administration lacks a coherent set of goals, a strategy to achieve them, or the personnel or effective policy process to address the most complex set of nuclear risks in US history,” a group of arms control experts wrote in a report this month by the disarmament group, Global Zero. “Put simply, the current US administration is blundering toward nuclear chaos with potentially disastrous consequences.”

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