Donald Trump is often accused of being utterly unpredictable. Yet on a number of issues he has demonstrated a high degree of consistency. Arms control is a prime example.
In 2017, Trump delivered on his promise to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) six-nation agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. In 2019, he canceled the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia. His plan now to leave the Open Skies Treaty, a 1992 accord that allows for aerial reconnaissance of the territory of 35 countries in Europe and North America, fully follows the logic of abolishing U.S. international security commitments. The next shoe to fall will likely be the New START Treaty, which the Trump administration seems happy to let expire next February.
Accusations of Russian infringements of the treaties and agreements, as well as the condemnation of Iranian activities outside the scope of the JCPOA, serve as a necessary and useful pretext for wrecking the established regimes. The prospect of crafting even better agreements, held out by President Trump and his aides, cannot be taken seriously. This administration has no interest in continuing with strategic arms control. It prefers to operate from a position of superior strength. Indeed, in Trump's view, this is the only acceptable posture for the United States in a hypercompetitive world. Abolishing limits on what the United States can do militarily would greatly increase the country's leverage. This, at least, is the expectation.
There are several conclusions that other countries, starting with Russia, should draw from this. One is that the 50-year-old arms control regime that helped keep the Cold War cold is beyond repair and is fast becoming history. Attempts to resuscitate it, noble as they are, will be futile. Even if a miracle happens and the New START is extended, it will be the last U.S.-Russian treaty regulating their most potent weapons. This means that for a long period of time, the global strategic regime will be essentially unregulated. Call it fully liberal. Nuclear deterrence based on the ability to set in motion mutual assured destruction will not be, as it has been so far, the principal element of global strategic stability; it will be the only one.