America’s rush back to nuclear weapons

In this interview, Lawrence Wilkerson discusses the Trump administration’s approach to military security.

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SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus

Lawrence Wilkerson is the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. He is current the Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy in the Government Department of the College of William and Mary.

Emanuel Pastreich: What is the current status of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on nuclear weapons?

Lawrence Wilkerson: As you know, the United States pulled out of the INF medium-range nuclear weapons treaty with Russia in August and it plans a substantial buildup of these destabilizing weapons, above all in East Asia. This move is dangerous.

The INF Treaty was far from perfect, but it had a broad appeal, including an appeal to many in the military, because it simply made sense.

That treaty between the United States and Russia encompassed all missiles, nuclear or conventional, ballistic or cruise, that had a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. When the INF Treaty was signed in 1987, it helped to slow down a dangerous arms race. For the first time since the Cold War started, an entire class of nuclear weapons was eliminated.

Pastreich: Why do you think the United States withdrew?

Wilkerson: We no longer live in a rational world in which policymakers take a scientific approach to risk.  Rather, policymaking is dominated by irrational figures like John Bolton, the president’s national security advisor, a man who hates arms control with a passion, who spends his days trying to find ways to undo the few restrictions that remain, and who would plunge the world into a completely new nuclear arms race.

This time, however, the competition won’t be bilateral, just between the United States and the USSR. This time the race will be global, and we will see a nightmare world of instability, with a renewed risk of a nuclear holocaust as a result.

Pastreich: What’s the background behind this drastic shift in American policy?

Wilkerson: Right now there are a huge number of intermediate-range missiles stationed in Fujian Province, and elsewhere in southern China, which are aimed at Taiwan. We’re talking about a missile for just about every square meter of every viable target in Taiwan. China was never a signatory to the INF Treaty because at the time its missile capacity was minimal and its nuclear weapons policy, which was set by Mao Zedong, was one of sufficiency to deter.

If there was a valid reason for the United States to withdraw from the current INF Treaty, it was this change in China’s missile arsenal. China is most likely contemplating a new doctrine with regard to the use of nuclear weapons. That change has little to do with Russia and everything to do with the pressing need for a new nuclear weapons arms control regime.

Pastreich: You mean that China’s actions were a reason for the United States to withdraw?

Wilkerson: In part, the changes in China were a factor. And Russia has been “cheating” with respect to the INF Treaty. Even more dangerous is Russia’s publication of a military doctrine calling for blunting NATO’s advantage in PGMs [precision guided munitions] by using short-range nuclear strikes. Russia has been building a missile inventory necessary to accomplish this doctrine.

There are of course other aspects of the problem. We find a mutual abuse of the INF Treaty, such as the United States putting ABM defenses and troops in former Warsaw Pact countries, thus moving the borders of NATO so that they are smack up against Russia’s “near abroad.” And now the United States refuses to talk about almost anything with Russia.

We see the proliferation of medium-range missiles among non-signatory countries (China, DPRK, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.) and also violations of the INF Treaty by both the original treaty signatories, who also happen to be the owners of the vast preponderance of nuclear weapons.

Pastreich: What do you think that should the United States have done then?

Wilkerson: Sadly, the United States kept complaining about what was imperfect about the treaty, but it made no effort to create something better, to fashion and gain support for an entirely new and more comprehensive nuclear arms control regime.

Instead, what the United States is accomplishing is the launch of a far more virulent arms race, one that could lead, some would argue inevitably, to the use of nuclear weapons in war.

It would have made better sense to maintain the treaty, or to declare it obsolete, in a bipartisan manner, and, in either case, to open negotiations to expand the treaty so as to include all nations that possess extensive stockpiles of intermediate-range missiles—particularly those that also possessing nuclear weapon capability. From the point of view of smart arms control, of our children’s future, and of the security of the United States and of the world, such an expanded and modernized, treaty would make perfect sense.

But Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, doesn’t do arms control.  Moreover, Trump himself seems to disdain multilateral arrangements, sensible negotiations, and the type of astute diplomacy required to accomplish either. He seems to more-or-less follow Bolton and his desire for “a little nuclear war.” While campaigning, Trump even suggested he believed the world would be better off if there were more, not fewer, nuclear weapons, and states that possessed them.

Pastreich: What can be done now to correct this mistake?

Wilkerson: I think you mean, given these clear realities what can be done to modify the behavior of an administration that has been opposed to arms control from the very start and that has done more and will do more to damage arms control efforts than any previous administration? How will we convince John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, who made their careers by opposing rational arms control treaties, that they don’t need to abandon treaties but should rather expand them, multi-lateralize them, and seek new ones that do even more than the old ones did?

If we are talking about these individuals alone, the task is hopeless. They are beyond redemption. But democratic politics is not simply about individuals, whether it be presidents, national security advisors, or otherwise. There are cases in American history where extremist politicians have been brought into line by a shift in the mood and in the culture and by a weigh-in by the demos in accordance with such shifts.

What we need is to create again in Washington DC a nuclear arms control environment, a culture in which responsibility and strict regulation of nuclear weapons—and other weapons, as in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty—is accepted as a necessity. We need to ensure that such a development is a natural occurrence, that it is something that is not disdained, but rather anticipated.

At the end of the day, we need to negotiate a series of treaties that form a global overlapping system that includes all classes of nuclear weapons. We need to bring into this process pariah states like Israel and North Korea. Achieving that goal requires us to be tough at times. We must be ready to take a strong stand to insist that all nuclear-weapon states must join the regime that will be established.

Pastreich: What is the thinking about nonproliferation and disarmament in the U.S. military?

Wilkerson: The military makes the challenge even greater because there are large factions in the military who are hankering for a new nuclear arms race. Those generals and admirals want more money, and they want to build more missiles. Doing so will allow them to get their hands on some of the trillion-plus dollars allotted for new nuclear weapons by former President Obama.

Those officers want all sorts of nuclear and non-nuclear missiles, but the diversity in their demands does not mean that they are strategically imaginative. They are not.

All they want is more, more, and a little more. But we should also remember that there are some clear thinkers and some brave people devoted to the common good mixed in with them. They see the handwriting on the wall and they wish to avert nuclear war.

President Trump is highly susceptible to the military’s siren call. The president has painted himself into multiple corners, and he seems to feel that he desperately needs the military to be president of the United States. Since he now faces opposition at almost every level of government and increasingly within the country, loyalty has become his first priority. He perceives the military to be overwhelmingly loyal to him and he wants to reward them.

This relationship between Trump and the military is dangerous because Trump is so ignorant about diplomacy and security, and at the same time he is increasingly desperate in his search for support. He does not care about global warming or nuclear war, but he is obsessed with his political standing. He desires above all to have people who will gather around him and listen to him speak. He is ultimately concerned with holding on to power.

Moreover, nuclear missiles, in particular, offer big juicy contracts that are not subject to much external review, and they empower the president—who is the one who can decide on his own whether or not to use them. So these weapons also feed Trump’s ego.

But anyone with any understanding of nuclear weapons knows how close we have come to nuclear war in the past—even with treaties in place. Sadly, most educated citizens have no idea how different a world we will be living in once the nuclear weapon genie escapes from its bottle, especially as there is a whole new group of nations like Germany, Turkey, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, and so on, that have either in the past shown a desire for nuclear weapons or who could join in a future nuclear arms race.

Pastreich: The decision to withdraw from the INF treaty, and other agreements like the ABM Treaty, while simultaneously increasing the number of short-range nuclear missiles, seems as if it was made in meetings among Bolton, Pompeo and Trump, with some input from the military. There were few, if any, congressional committees who debated the new policies, or summoned experts on nonproliferation for testimony.  

Wilkerson: This unhealthy policy-making process seems to be intrinsic to the Trump administration. But the shift has been taking place for some time. The cause is not necessarily Trump.

H.L. Mencken wrote back in 1920 that one day, “…the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” Although that prediction was uncanny, it was not a matter of chance.

The current crescendo of incompetence is the product of a long-term structural and statutory shift that has encouraged a dysfunctional decision-making process.

We can see Trump’s arbitrary use of power as the logical conclusion of the centralization of national security decision-making in the White House that dates back to the 1947 National Security Act. This concentration of power in the White House, and the decline of the power of the president’s cabinet, as well as of the powerful congressional committees run by highly educated and focused political leaders like Jacob Javits or James Fulbright, have profoundly altered the process by which policy is formulated and decisions are made.

The next step came after Ronald Reagan both consolidated power in the executive and stripped other parts of the federal government of budgets and authority. He created a new policy landscape that was readily made use of by H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, with some slight variations. So, the original balance of powers among Congress, the judiciary, and the executive described in the constitution existed only by dint of institutional inertia. That balance was ready to be torn down—and was torn down like a rotten tree—by Trump’s people.  

Pastreich: How does this institutional shift relate to the seemingly endless wars the United States is involved in?

Wilkerson: Many members of Congress—and particularly powerful committee chairmen—are backed to the hilt by Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, BAE, Grumman, General Dynamics, and other military contractors who are pursuing big-budget contracts with the government. This trend is true for both parties, but the Republicans practice it with greater abandonment. The coffers of these Congress members are essentially filled up by lobbyists who represent these merchants of war.

Pastreich: Although it seems irrelevant to lobbyists and influence peddlers, the constitution is supposed to be the manual that determines how the Federal government is run.

Wilkerson: The three branches of government are co-equal, but the legislative branch was clearly meant to be primus inter pares, and James Madison was quite adamant on that point.

The executive has become the overwhelmingly dominant branch. And now you have a specially selected Supreme Court and a court system that basically approves all of the executive branch’s actions, domestic and foreign. The Congress, especially the Republican-dominated Senate, is incapable of overriding the president. At this very moment, the Republicans in the Senate and the White House are conspiring to keep the House of Representatives from reclaiming the war powers that the constitution grants to Congress.

That battle is but the small end of the sword, if you will. The big end is that if we do go to war with Iran, for example, it will be without any congressional input, whatsoever. The latest disaster for the United States will be perpetrated by the executive branch alone, without any accountability. That is the degree to which the decision-making process with regard to war has been usurped by the president.

Of course, saying that decision-making is centralized in the White House is not the entire story. That White House we see today was created by, and takes its marching orders from, a predatory and transnational capitalist state where defense contractors, investment bankers, and hedge fund billionaires call the shots. Then there is big oil, big food, and big energy. Needless to say, having the decision-making so centralized makes it much easier for the big money from these groups to have impact than would be the case if decision-making were spread across the cabinet or across the government. Also, there is no moment in the process when anyone asks what the national interest is, what the long-term implications are.

Pastreich: Let’s come back to China for a moment. What are the risks for America here?

Wilkerson: First, let’s consider what the role of the United States should be—and, not just about juicy military budgets resulting from the China threat.

These days the United States is just a disruptor in Asia, and an unintelligent disruptor at that. We swing from cooing “I love you, Kim Jong Un” to imposing vicious tariffs on Chinese goods to creating a major embarrassment for Japanese Prime Minister Abe when he tried to help out with Iran.

And most of us were shocked to see Trump mocking how Japanese speak and how Koreans speak. That was the president of the United States! He was not speaking to Prime Minister Abe or to President Moon, but to a racist audience at home and for strictly domestic political purposes.

But to a certain degree the future role of the United States in East Asia will be determined by power dynamics in the region as much as by U.S. policy. Some Americans might want to stay, to be a hegemon in Northeast Asia forever. But that is not a sustainable policy. There is a desperate need for the United States to find a middle ground, a course that preserves some essential American influence within a cooperative framework. The competition with China, and other powers, is going to be substantial at all levels, and simply painting China as a bogeyman is not going to do the trick.

First, we need to go back to good old-fashioned diplomacy. That is more important than any fighter plane or missile. No state is going to fare well in a hot war, or even in a new cold war. We need to use our creativity to shape a culture that supports arms treaties, disarmament, and peace in general—peaceful competition, if you will. And we must build an off-ramp that allows America to dismount the imperial train and steer away from global hegemony and towards global cooperation.

Oddly enough, I think Trump is – very inexpertly, imperfectly, and probably unknowingly – digging out the foundations for such a new collaborative order through his destructive fits. He calls into question the value of NATO, and the so-called deep state is immediately up in arms. So, although Trump may be doing many destructive things, he is also drawing attention to the anachronism that NATO has become post-Cold War. The alliance no longer has any purpose except to seek out trouble “out of area” to justify itself.

We need to have the courage to discuss how we will bring back U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, and under what circumstances. We cannot consider that discussion a taboo topic. We also need to use our imagination, and our commitment, to create a regional order that assures the continued security of the Korean Peninsula without that U.S. troop presence.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. If the United States wants to maintain its influence in East Asia, its needs plans to bring its troops back from other parts of East Asia, including Japan and particularly Okinawa. We will be much better off if we take the initiative than if we are pushed out by some disaster or another.

And in terms of policy change, I am not just talking about security issues. The United States today is flat-out bankrupt, with a $22 trillion debt. Annual interest payments on that debt added to the annual military budget will zero-out all other discretionary federal spending in less than a decade. We just did something unprecedented: we printed billions of dollars under the Quantitative Easing program with absolutely nothing behind those dollars except the paper and ink on which they were printed. We have no earthly idea what such profligacy will produce in the future. We have new security challenges like a changing climate and we had better start saving money, and learning to respond to new security challenges, in a manner that does not require such an expensive military instrument.

Pastreich: How can the United States fashion a different strategy for engaging with the world?

Wilkerson: Ambassador Richard Haass threw out the concept of “integration” back in 2001 in his discussions with his Policy Planning staff. He thought that “integration” was the best one-word substitution for “containment.” For Haass, integration was a concept that offered an alternative to globalization and its demand for unending expansion and extraction. Haass did not like the concept of globalization, and I think he was right.

Globalization has happened before, in the 1890s, for example. But globalization brings contradictions and tensions that are dangerous. What is going on today goes beyond globalization. What we see happening today is integration: integration of trade, integration of society, integration of culture. That integration is at times mean, disruptive, hateful, and dangerous, but it’s happening.

Trade is where we observe the most profound integration. For example, the United States cannot make a sophisticated piece of military equipment any longer without employing foreign components.

But Trump is heading in the opposite direction. He wants to take apart trade agreements and institutions, to disintegrate, not to integrate, trade. And he thinks that somehow the destruction of global institutions will save “white America.”

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