Nuclear Weapons in the Trump Years: NTI’s Corey Hinderstein on Expert Panel

This post was written by Margaret Miller, an intern with NTI’s Global Nuclear Policy Program. Miller graduated from the College of William & Mary – University of St Andrews Joint Degree Programme.

Nuclear weapons affect almost every critical foreign policy problem today, including deteriorating arms control regimes, nonproliferation challenges in Iran and North Korea, and strategic competition around the world. Yet, according to Thomas Countryman of the Arms Control Association, “fifty years ago, we had a stronger national discussion about nuclear weapons” than today.

Countryman was introducing a panel of nuclear policy experts, convened by the Arms Control Association and hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, titled, “A Critical Evaluation of the Trump Administration's Nuclear Weapons Policies.” The July 29 panel was chaired by Lara Seligman, Pentagon correspondent at Foreign Policy and included:

  •    Corey Hinderstein, Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Vice President for International Fuel Cycle Strategies
  •    Lieutenant General (ret.) Frank Klotz, former administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration and former commander of Air Force Global Strike Command
  •    Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association

Experts Agree: Extend New START

Panelists highlighted the timing of the event, just days before the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is due to expire on August 2. Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz emphasized “the wisdom and urgency of extending New START” and “urge[d] [Congress] to adopt the House language on New START.”  At this point, the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act has restricted funding for withdrawal from New START unless Russia violates the treaty. Klotz also urged the Trump administration to resume strategic dialogue with Russia because New START’s 2021 expiration will close the last bilateral arms control channel.

Kingston Reif said, “President Trump has mentioned he wants some sort of grand new arms control deal,” but it is unclear if this approach is merely a “poison pill” to justify walking away from the New START Treaty. Reif also questioned what “the U.S. [is] willing to put on the table for a future agreement,” and raised the possibility that China and Russia might demand concessions regarding U.S. missile defense programs.

Iran: “There still is something to preserve”

NTI’s Corey Hinderstein stipulated that “reasonable people can disagree” about whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran was the right deal at the time of its conclusion because it exclusively covered Iran’s nuclear program. However, Hinderstein asserted that a benefit of JCPOA, often discussed in negative terms today, was this “focus on the biggest problem with the nearest-term consequences.” The deal separated Iran’s nuclear program from other disruptive regional activities. Subsequent dialogue and negotiations could have addressed these problems without the threat of Iranian nuclear use.

Hinderstein highlighted that the JCPOA “introduced predictability and reduced uncertainty … by setting particular timelines and limits” and “on-the ground verification,” unlike anywhere else in the world. Despite information that Iran is “on the wrong trajectory” by violating some of the limits in the JCPOA, Hinderstein emphasized that these steps are reversible for now. Indeed, she noted that the Joint Commission meeting in Vienna on July 28 “showed there is still something to preserve.” Hinderstein expressed her desire for a “renewal of diplomatic dialogue,” saying “if this is a door that is open, we should walk through it.”

Mixed Reviews: Evaluating Trump’s Nuclear Policies

Several panelists highlighted continuity between President Obama’s and President Trump’s nuclear modernization plans, but they debated the wisdom of new low-yield weapons. Lara Seligman noted that this administration seems to have increased its focus on the need to “deter and match” Russia and China, including procuring new low-yield nuclear weapons. Reif argued that “the belief that a nuclear conflict can be controlled” by using non-strategic nuclear weapons “is dangerous thinking,” in part because “the fog of war is thick.” Klotz disagreed and argued in favor of the modernization plans, quoting Reagan: “The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used.”

Hinderstein noted that “too often, we speak about Iran and North Korea in isolation,” rather than linked to broader international challenges. She gave the Trump administration’s DPRK policy “an incomplete…report card,” and acknowledges the US approach “did need a big change.” Various pundits and North Korea watchers criticized Trump’s engagement with Kim Jong Un, but Hinderstein agreed that “the top down approach is the absolute only way that you’ll get anything done,” with North Korea.

However, this approach requires North Korea engagement and so far, U.S. “teams of experts … just don’t have counterparts on the other side.” Looking forward, “we need to be realistic” about DPRK advances, and Hinderstein said, “we can’t hold North Korea to a commitment that doesn’t exist.” In conclusion, Hinderstein noted that NTI and the State Department have been “making actual progress on developing and defining verification measures” with 25 countries through The International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV).

A transcript of the event is available here.

August 1, 2019

Most Popular