Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, offered a sobering assessment of the current moment in our nuclear history.
“I’d say we’re at a three [out of ten],” she said. “It’s grim.”
Part of that judgement is tied in with the almost adversarial stance Washington has taken towards nuclear security in recent years. For decades, presidents from both parties have made nuclear agreements a key part of their international agenda. That trend appears to have stalled.
“The best thing about the US-Russia strategic relationship was that the Americans never took ‘no’ for an answer,” Bell explained, referencing the value previous administrations placed on securing nuclear security agreements. “Now we’re seeing what happens when the US just says ‘no.’”
The fate of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is a glaring example. Bell was working for the Obama administration’s State Department when the United States received intelligence that Russia was skirting treaty limitations on intermediate-range missiles.
“I can remember the moment that I found out,” Bell said. “I actually put my head down on the conference table because I was so frustrated. We had a path ahead following the ratification of New START and could start to get our arms around things like tactical nuclear weapons.”
But instead of gradually forcing the Russians back into compliance, as Reagan did when the Soviets constructed a radar station in the 1980s that violated a previous accord, the Trump administration simply walked away.
It could have been different. “It is absolutely possible to fix these problems,” said Bell. “You just have to be committed. There has to be political will. There has to be patience. There has to be an empowering of technical experts. These treaties that we created in the wake of the Cold War to save ourselves from ourselves are slowly eroding, they have to be constantly tended.”
“And that is really lacking in the Trump administration.”
The State Department, Bell contended, is being starved of funding and expertise. “It’s always strange to me,” she said, “that [the White House] says we’re negotiating with Iran and we’re negotiating with North Korea, and now we want to negotiate this completely unprecedented trilateral dialogue with the Chinese and the Russians.”
“But we’re going to do it completely short staffed with one arm tied behind our back and a president who is not going to be paying close attention.”
However, simply devoting more resources to the State Department - important as that is - is not enough to solve the fundamental issue, Bell argued. “We have to rethink where we are. We’re lucky that nothing ever went wrong,” she explained. “In fact, the law of odds is working against that. And the longer we stay here assuming nothing will ever go wrong, the more likely it is that something will go wrong.”
Such a viewpoint is unpopular in Washington, where the stakes can induce policy stasis, if not outright paralysis. Those who question the nuclear orthodoxy - including the need for a triad of air-, sea-, and ground-launched missiles - can find themselves branded a heretic and exiled from circles of power.
But like all stale dogmas, Bell said the nuclear creed has one weakness: it can be challenged by relentless questioning. “What I’d like to see,” she says, “is more members of Congress and their staff pushing the administration to justify the line items in their [nuclear] budget.”
“With the low-yield warhead,” Bell continued, “does this make our submarines vulnerable? What are the targets? How come we have one thousand low-yield warheads in our arsenal? You asked us to recapitalize the delivery platforms for those low-yield weapons, but somehow they’re not viable against Russian air defenses?”
“These are the questions that need to be asked,” she said. “Congress is within their rights to really dig down. Do we actually need these systems?”