Assault on Arms Control

Joseph Cirincione, Senior Associate

Reprinted with permission from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 2000

If you thought the Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was an historic tragedy, wait. It could get a lot worse. The battle over the test ban is part of a larger war over the future of the nonproliferation regime, the value of nuclear weapons, and America's role in the world. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott crystallized his views when, immediately after the vote against the test ban, he stood on the Senate floor to detail his recommended next steps. First, he said, "strengthen U.S. nuclear deterrence."

Strengthen nuclear deterrence? The United States already has the most sophisticated and expensive arsenal in the world, with more than 12,000 nuclear weapons of nine distinct designs refined through 1,030 nuclear tests conducted over 47 years and maintained by an elaborate scientific complex with tens of thousands of scientists and technicians. U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $5.5 trillion on these weapons, and they pay $25 billion a year to sustain and operate the nuclear weapons complex, including $4.5 billion per year for the controversial Stockpile Stewardship Program.

Even if all the strategic arms accords now envisioned are implemented--a fast diminishing prospect--the United States plans to maintain more than 10,000 nuclear warheads in various stages of operational use or storage for the indefinite future, as detailed in the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review. Only the number of deployed warheads would vary, depending on which--if any--START agreement was in force. This means that by 2015, if Russian nuclear forces continue to deteriorate as now projected, and even if China pursues its current modernization plans, the U.S. arsenal will be five times the size of the arsenals of all the other nations in the world combined. One U.S. Trident missile carries about the same firepower as all the guns and all the bombs exploded in all the wars in history.

But far-right politicians and weapons advocates do not believe this is enough. They want better, they want different, but most of all, they want more. In a political variant of severe paranoia, they seem divorced from the physical reality of the weapons they embrace, insatiably craving more protection from what they believe to be mounting, omnipresent threats. They are not interested in deals that lower numbers of deployed strategic warheads or limit missile defenses. They are not about liquidating excessive Cold War arsenals. They want large, deployed arrays of nuclear and conventional weapon systems and multiple, layered defenses. They reject any checks on American power. What's the point of being a hegemon, if you don't get to kick butt?

This attitude is difficult for even America's closest allies to understand. The French, in particular, have strongly criticized the Senate vote and missile defense deployment plans. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin warned in late October that "the global strategic equilibrium would be threatened" if the international community "does not succeed in reining in an arms race which is clearly reviving," or if the U.S. temptation "to free itself from international discipline in the field of strategic weapons were to take more concrete form."(1) Both allies and adversaries see a United States that, 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, spends as if the Cold War still raged. The $280 billion defense budget dwarfs that of any possible foe and is more than the defense spending of the next eight nations combined.

American conservatives, however, complain of emaciated armed forces, stretched thin by global commitments, desperately in need of new weaponry. They scorn world opinion, believing their clarion calls are vital to rouse America, to stir it toward a new, more robust defense against an increasingly hostile world.

When worlds collide

Does the Senate vote signal the beginning of a new isolationism? Not exactly. At least not the classic isolationism of the 1920s or 1930s. The United States is deeply, extensively, and irreversibly engaged in the world. Our era is characterized by the globalization of economies, technologies, and politics. The United States could not withdraw even if it wanted to. The United States could, however, reject the political forms of multilateral cooperation that flow from global economic and technologic relationships--which is precisely what the far right preaches. Of course they want to continue to benefit from global commerce, but they oppose participation in any international regime that they believe hinders U.S. freedom of action. Arms control, environmental accords, and international courts are anathema.

Conservative writers Robert Kagan and William Kristol railed recently against "squeamish and guilty" internationalism. They say that in the coming election campaign, "Republicans will argue that American security cannot be safeguarded by international conventions. Instead, they will ask Americans to face this increasingly dangerous world without illusions. They will argue that American dominance can be sustained for many decades to come, not by arms control agreements, but by augmenting America's power, and, therefore, its ability to lead."(2)

If this were only a delusional expression by what New York Times columnist Tom Friedman calls "the Nutty But Energetic Republicans" who masterminded the defeat of the CTBT and currently dominate Senate leadership, it might be explained as the frustration of the lynch mob that failed to hang President Clinton, or as the disorientation produced by the abrupt end of the Soviet menace. In other words, a temporary distortion in the political continuum that would naturally correct over time.

But it is more than that. The defeat of the test ban treaty, the attacks on the Agreed Framework with North Korea, the drive to deploy a national missile defense system, this year's first real increase in the defense budget since 1985, and efforts to weaken or kill key nonproliferation agreements (including treaties banning chemical and biological weapons and reducing nuclear weapons) are all manifestations of a fundamental clash of world views that is raging in Washington and will spill over into the 2000 political campaign with profound implications for international security regimes.

The threat matrix

On one side of the debate are the defense hawks, primarily conservative Republicans who believe the main danger to America's security comes from mounting international military threats. On the other side are the domestic pragmatists, composed of liberal Democrats and Republicans, but also conservatives of both parties who are more concerned with fiscal and tax policies and domestic issues. Both camps have their views shaped by ideology, by national and local politics, and by the economics of the government procurement process.

The defense hawks see a world, in George W. Bush's phrase, "of terror and missiles and madmen." Paul Wolfowitz, one of Bush's key advisers and a former deputy secretary of defense, compares the 1990s to the 1890s. Then, too, he says, Americans thought the great wars were behind them and the coming century would be characterized by an internationalizing economy, the spread of wonderful new technologies, and the resolution of national disputes through arbitration. Instead, he says, the twentieth century brought us the two most horrific wars in human history. These wars were started by two nations no one in the 1890s thought of as great powers: Germany, just united as a nation; and Japan, only then emerging from centuries of feudalism. Today, says Wolfowitz, China presents "the obvious and disturbing analogy."(3)

Other defense hawks go further, arguing that a U.S.-China clash is almost inevitable. "China is building up its military with high-tech weapons that can threaten neighbors and the United States," warns Arthur Waldron, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.4 "China's territorial claims would likely lead to regional war if they were consistently enforced." Such a war, he fears, could start as much by miscalculation as by design.

Several years ago, Samuel P. Huntington offered a broader vision in his article and book, The Clash of Civilizations. "The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future," he says, noting in particular what he calls the "Confucian-Islamic alliance" he sees forming against the West.(5)

Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb is one of several who still echo this view. Webb warned nearly a year ago that "China has been developing a strategic axis with the Muslim world . . . evidenced most clearly by its continuing military assistance to Iran and . . . Pakistan."(6)

Modern day arms control treaties, in this view, are worse than no treaties at all. They promote complacency, lulling America into a false sense of security. Meanwhile, several non-Western nations (columnist Charles Krauthammer calls them "weapon states") are busily acquiring and deploying nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and ballistic missiles.

The West naively "promotes nonproliferation as a universal norm and nonproliferation treaties and inspections as means of realizing that norm," says Huntington. The non-Western nations, on the other hand, "assert their right to acquire and to deploy whatever weapons they think necessary for their security," seeing weapons of mass destruction "as the potential equalizer of superior Western conventional power."

The political dimension

This analytical and ideological view is buttressed by political considerations. Republicans have always attacked Democrats as "weak" on defense, and Republican strategists see defense and foreign policy as positive, powerful issues for their party. Sen. Bob Dole and then-Speaker Newt Gingrich tried to make ballistic missile defense a wedge issue in the 1996 presidential campaign with the "Defend America Act." They hoped to portray President Clinton as weak for failing to defend America from rogue nation missile threats. Despite the failure of the effort (it foundered in the House when fiscally conservative Republicans deserted the bill over cost estimates of $60 billion or more for the proposed system), the hawks are gearing up again to make missile defense a key issue.

All the Republican candidates have offered variations on Elizabeth Dole's September 27 speech: "The United States will rebuild and restore its military. We will develop and implement national and theater missile defense systems. Once and for all, Americans will be defended from foreign attack. Indeed, there can be no higher priority for any president."

Even deeper than these national considerations are the state and district politics that shape the conservative view. "All politics is local," said former Speaker Tip O'Neill, and that is certainly true for the majority of the members of the congressional defense committees. Most represent districts with large military installations or defense industrial facilities. Promoting larger defense budgets isn't just a matter of ideology or national politics; it means votes. At the town hall meetings, "Stand up to Red China" and "Give the Troops the Weapons They Need" are applause lines.

Members of Congress also hear directly from their constituents about defense problems. They knew there were readiness problems even as the military service chiefs swore it was not a serious issue. Members heard firsthand about spare-part shortages, long deployment rotations, and a lack of training hours. Some used "readiness" as an opportunity to attack the administration, but it also represented the genuine complaints of the people who put them in office.

Local muscle

Finally, there is the powerfully persuasive force of the defense procurement process. Jobs, even more than campaign contributions, shape political positions. Every 10 jobs in a district tied to defense contracts could translate into 50 votes from workers' families and friends. Defense contractors have mastered the art of dispensing subcontracts throughout the nation to build support for major procurement programs. When budget cutters in the early 1990s, for example, questioned whether the nation needed to continue to build Seawolf submarines to hunt for Soviet subs that no longer existed, General Dynamics visited every key congressional office. They passed out glossy brochures explaining that the submarine was absolutely necessary for national security. But they also pointed out to each legislator how many millions of dollars went into his or her state thanks to the program. They proudly presented maps showing $2.6 billion in Seawolf purchases in 37 states. It worked well enough to garner funding for three Seawolf subs and to initiate a program to build 30 attack submarines at a cost of $64 billion. Every large weapons program routinely does the same. And once a program starts "bending metal" it is almost impossible to stop. Republicans are lobbied by chambers of commerce; Democrats by labor unions. (This is one reason there is such a rush to skip critical tests and proceed directly into limited-rate production of missile defenses and other controversial systems.)

The flip side

This combination of ideology, politics, and procurement seems overwhelming. But there is another side. Many people do not see the same threat as the defense hawks and have different political imperatives and competing procurement goals. This camp of pragmatists includes politicians from two other groups, which Tom Friedman describes as the "Serious but Timid Republicans," who have thoughtful policies to offer but who are in the minority in their own party, and the "Serious but Lazy Democrats," who have the right instincts but who have weak follow-through. These politicians believe in policies that can forge a stabilizing and sustainable globalization, but they often lack the courage of their convictions or the ability to focus and persevere in a political battle.

For the pragmatists, the threats to American security are primarily domestic or are best addressed through international cooperative security arrangements. Unilateral American military operations are an option of last resort.

That view is in tune with the vast majority of U.S. citizens. Ask any focus group to list what their concerns are. They list jobs, education, crime, race relations, and so on, long before anything resembling international concerns appears. Terrorism is usually the number one international threat cited.

This view also corresponds with official intelligence threat assessments. Lt. Gen. Patrick Hughes, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress:

"From a national security standpoint, the threats facing the United States have diminished in order of magnitude, and we are unlikely to face a global military challenger on the scale of the former Soviet Union for at least the next two decades. The world is spending in real terms some 30-40 percent less on defense than it did during the height of the Cold War, the 'rogue' states are relatively isolated, and at least one--North Korea--is probably terminal."7

Whether China or some other nation will challenge America militarily in the future, in their view, depends heavily on the policies we adopt today. "If we treat China as an enemy," says former defense secretary William Perry, "they will become one."

Seeing less of a military threat, the pragmatists are more willing to reduce nuclear and conventional force levels. They also have powerful economic reasons for reducing defense spending. Half of all discretionary spending (the 32 percent of the budget that is not automatically allocated to mandatory spending on Social Security, Medicare, veterans' benefits, interest on the debt, and so on) is spent on defense. That means that all other programs--from agriculture to the national zoo--have to compete for what's left. If defense spending grows, domestic spending must shrink or taxes must be raised. This has generated a resource war in Washington and is one of the major reasons why it is so difficult to reach an agreement on the budget.

Nor is this just a split between the parties. There are sharp differences within the Republican Party over spending priorities. Last year, the leadership's plan to increase defense and education spending while cutting taxes and still reducing overall spending meant severe cuts that committee chairs found difficult to absorb.

It was "like a teeter-totter," said Republican Cong. Ralph Regula of Ohio, chair of the House subcommittee on Interior and related agencies, "If education and defense go up, it means less on the other end of the board."8 Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, for example, complained that his transportation subcommittee would have to cut $2.2 billion from the White House request, which would mean zeroing out Amtrak, ending plans to modernize air traffic computer systems, canceling all Coast Guard shipbuilding contracts, terminating the 8,500-member Coast Guard reserve, and cutting the FAA operations budget by 11 percent. "This is terrible," echoed his House counterpart, Virginia Republican Frank Wolf. "You would end Amtrak, and you would pretty much devastate the Coast Guard."

Many pragmatists are strongly pro-defense, but they believe many new programs are unnecessary. This year, for example, House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Jerry Lewis cut production funding for Lockheed Martin's $190 million-per-copy F-22. Without the Soviet threat, he argued, the plane no longer made sense. In his committee mark, he shifted the funds to other, more pressing military needs. Knowing the power of procurement politics, he increased funding for competing planes such as the F-15 and F-16 built in other congressional districts, to lock in support for his F-22 cut.

Many analysts believe, as the defense industry trade publication Defense News editorialized in "DOD Funds Yesterday," the military is buying weapons conceived in the Cold War but no longer needed. Similarly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are said to be increasingly concerned that missile defense systems will suck funds from more urgent programs.

Gov. George W. Bush seems of two minds on these issues. He included several thoughtful defense reforms in his defense policy speech last fall, including "selectively modernizing"--skipping the building of some next-generation weapons but investing more in research.

Looking ahead

The pragmatists of both parties also respond to their constituents' concerns. At town meetings in Iowa, say, or Detroit, a member of Congress is going to hear about the need for affordable health care and schools, about farm aid and economic development, not arguments for more nuclear weapons. These members return to Washington to fight with no less patriotic fervor than their hawkish colleagues for what they believe will keep America strong, secure, and a global leader.

Meanwhile, Democrats have always attacked Republicans for wanting to gut Social Security. While protecting their right flank, there is little doubt that the national Democratic candidates will run on social issues, not defense. In fact, a New York Times/CBS News poll in November showed that Democrats enjoyed public confidence on most critical election issues, from health care to education to Social Security, and more voters said they would vote for Democrats than Republicans in the House of Representatives.(9)

In the long run, it may well be that the common-sense approach of the pragmatists will prevail. They represent the views of the majority of analysts, newspaper editors, politicians, and the public at large. In 2001, a Democratic House and a Republican president could reproduce a combination that created many of the key components of the nonproliferation regime that contemporary conservatives now abhor.

But in the short run, the defense hawks hold the dominant political positions in Con gress and they have pressured members of both parties into compromising on security issues, especially on the early deployment of national missile defenses.

By relentlessly implementing their agenda of dismantling the nonproliferation regime treaty by treaty and agreement by agreement, it is possible that the hawks' apocalyptic view of the world could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By tearing down the barriers to the spread of weapons of mass destruction, they may create the terrifying nuclear world they now imagine.

Then they will be right: no defense will be enough.


Joseph Cirincione is director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of Repairing the Regime (forthcoming).

Notes: 1. "French Premier Jospin Warns of Renewed Arms Race," Agence France Presse, October 22, 1999.

2. William Kristol and Robert Kagan, "Reject the Global Buddy System," New York Times, October 25, 1999, p. A27.

3. Paul Wolfowitz, "Bridging Centuries: Fin de Siecle All Over Again," National Interest, Spring 1997.

4. Arthur Waldron, "Why China Could Be Dangerous," American Enterprise, July/August 1998, p.40.

5. Samuel P. Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations?," Foreign Affairs, vol. 72 (Summer 1993), p. 22.

6. James Webb, "Warily Watching China," New York Times, February 23, 1999, p. A23.

7. Lt. Gen. Patrick M. Hughes, Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, "Global Threats and Challenges to the United States and Its Interests Abroad," Statement before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, February 5, 1997.

8. "The Straitjacket of Strict Spending Limits," Washington Post, April 6, 1999.

9. "Poll Finds Greater Confidence in Democrats," New York Times, November 10, 1999, p. A1.