BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
For decades, the United States has committed itself to enforcing the nuclear non-proliferation regime. While this desire is partly borne out of a wish to turn back the nuclear clock, it is also out of an antiquated assumption that America’s nuclear deterrence would be damaged–and the United States would be vulnerable to attack–if nearly every state acquires nuclear technology (an interesting theory, since nuclear technology is over 60 years old). However, this assumption that our survival can rest only on the twin policy pillars of nuclear non-proliferation coupled with nuclear deterrence is like using classic chess rules to play three-dimensional chess. There are other factors around today that can–and should–change our metrics for national defense.
1. Reliable Missile Defense
The first, most obvious, is the concept of reliable missile defense. Since the late 1950’s, beginning with the LIM-49 Nike Zeus antiballistic missile (ABM) system, the United States has endeavored to create a viable defense against incoming nuclear missiles. For various reasons–mostly due to America’s foreign policy establishment favoring arms control and deterrence–such programs have been woefully underfunded. During the Cold War, as the United States let its vast lead in both nuclear technology and missile defense technology fade away in the face of increasing Soviet capabilities in both fields, the threat to America was never greater.
When Ronald Reagan became president he fundamentally upended the way that the establishment viewed missile defense and the Cold War overall. He spoke of actually defeating the Soviet Union; he refused to engage in moral equivalence with the Reds; in 1983, he famously insisted upon a working missile defense system (and wanted to place that system in orbit in the form of the Strategic Defense Initiative). At a time when everyone fervently believed in Mutual Assured Destruction (in other words, a nuclear suicide pact between America’s elites and the Soviet Union’s leadership), Reagan advocated Mutual Assured Survival–this would negate nuclear war entirely, since the luster of nuclear arms would have been lost the moment America could prevent the Soviet Union’s arms from threatening us any longer.
Obviously, this plan had its technical limitations at that point in time. However, the concept was to continue investing in research and development, so that ultimately America’s technological and engineering prowess could catch up the way that it did when we developed the first nuclear arms in the 1940’s. Groundbreaking technologies, such as ABM, rely upon copious investment, firm leadership, and patience.
These are the three things that most American presidents of the modern era have lacked.
When the Cold War ended, everything changed. The Soviets were no more and the United States was the unquestioned global hegemon. Despite having been President Reagan’s political wingman for all eight years of his presidency, George H.W. Bush did not share Reagan’s enthusiasm for zero-sum thinking in foreign policy. President George H.W. Bush was very much a creature of the Washington Establishment who favored the old ways of deterrence and arms control that dominated the pre-Reagan-era Washington, D.C. To be sure, these ideas have their place and did serve some purpose during the darkest days of the Cold War. However, no state wishes to live in a world where it is constantly threatened with nuclear annihilation. Thus, it should behoove a country as rich and powerful as the United States (and its allies) to develop systems that can diminish the effectiveness of an enemy’s nuclear arsenal. Yet, from George H.W. Bush through Barack Obama, America’s commitment to developing ABM technology has been haphazard at best (and America has all but abandoned the notion of space-based missile defenses).
Thankfully, since the George W. Bush Administration pulled America out of the ABM Treaty in 2001, the United States has developed a working (albeit rudimentary) ABM program in the form of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. However, this is designed to operate in a contested theater of operation, and can only defend against short, medium, or intermediate range ballistic missiles. So, unless Venezuela or Cuba opted to launch an attack upon the United States, this system would be insufficient to defend the homeland. But, such a system would be ideal as the basis of a major regional defense for Eastern Europe.
Right now, the Eastern Europeans are skittish over the prospect of an irredentist Russia lingering next door, looking to gobble up the next unsuspecting former Soviet satellite. The United States has long flirted with the idea of placing an ABM system in Poland. However, this proved politically toxic: the George W. Bush Administration favored such a program but his successor, Barack Obama, abandoned this program in favor of a far less effective ocean-based system (of course, both Bush and Obama claimed the system was predicated at defending Europe from an Iranian nuclear attack, but who are we kidding here?). The constant starting-and-stopping of deployment for the THAAD and similar systems only leaves the United States and its allies more vulnerable.
Of course, the Russians will balk at the prospect of having a working missile defense system in Poland. However, the Russians have been on the warpath since 2008, when they first cleaved bits of Georgia away and then repeated the maneuver in 2014 in Ukraine. And, while I am sympathetic to certain Russian complaints regarding NATO and EU “double expansion” into what they view as their territory, the fact remains that the United States has a duty to protect the international system as it is arranged, not as aggressive revanchist powers seek to remake it. If our allies want to better their own capabilities at defending themselves–thereby delaying the need to send young Americans into the fray–I am all for it. After all, wasn’t it Franklin Delano Roosevelt who envisaged America as the “arsenal of democracy”?
Putting a THAAD system in Poland would be the first step toward better protecting the Eastern Europeans from an increasingly irredentist Russia. While some would argue that the Russians will view this as an escalation, the Trump Administration has already enacted foolish sanctions that most assuredly is an escalation in Russo-American relations (after the last year of both the Democrats and Republicans lambasting the Russians as cyberwarfare aggressors during the last election). We’ve shaken our saber enough at Russia that we should worry that Russia just might react violently. Better to have as much capabilities in the hands of those states who would actually suffer Russia’s wrath rather than far away in the United States, waiting to come on shore. Degrading Russia’s nuclear threat would be a momentous step toward shoring up Eastern European defense.
2. Nuclear Proliferation
This is another controversial topic. As you may know, I’ve argued vociferously in favor of proliferating nuclear arms to our allies who sit at the periphery of geopolitical fault lines (like Japan and South Korea). Poland is no different. Poland is very much like California in geopolitical terms in that it sits atop a major fault line. Whereas California’s fault line is geological, Poland’s is geopolitical–it is the buffer between Russia and the rest of Europe. Indeed, Poland helped to usher in the Viségrad Battle Group following the end of the Cold War.
Viségrad is a sub-regional grouping of Eastern European states that are committed to economic and military development. They are subordinated to the European Union and not NATO. But, that’s a good thing. For years, Russia has bemoaned the expansion of NATO. This is because Russia views NATO as nothing more than arm of the American empire. Whether true or not (it likely isn’t), President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle truly believe that the United States and the United Kingdom are interested in encircling the Russian Federation and ultimately forcing its breakup. Putin believes that the Cold War never ended, it simply changed from a geopolitical fight to a geoeconomic fight–and Russia has been losing since the 1990’s.
The United States should have heeded former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s warning to former President Bill Clinton about the dangers of a “cold peace” existing between Russia and the United States in the post-Cold War, should the U.S. continue supporting NATO expansion into territory once held by the Russians. We did not. That is our mistake. However, we are still duty-bound to help our friends and to ensure that Russia does not succeed in fundamentally destroying the norms of international politics in order to sate its insatiable appetite for territorial aggrandizement.
By empowering the Viségrad Battle Group, as led by Poland, the United States will live up to its commitments without risking a larger war with the Russians. No American troops would be required to buttress Eastern European defense. Plus, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling for a real European Union Army–and with President Donald Trump being a leading skeptic of NATO (despite whatever he has said to the contrary in recent months)–empowering Poland is the best path forward. In fact, in early 2017, Merkel met with the Polish leadership to discuss the formation of a German-Polish defense system that included a nascent nuclear arsenal. The meeting went well, but with both sides expressing a degree of hesitance for what the development of such systems might do for both German and Polish foreign policy.
As an American with friends and family who would be sent to fight as the first line of defense in Eastern Europe against a nuclear-armed Russia, I favor indigenous forces building up their own capabilities as best as they can. Right now, most European members of NATO spend less than 2 percent of their GDP on the alliance that they deem pivotal to their collective national survival. This is well below the agreed-upon level. It has been this way for years, with America having to foot the bill, both in terms of cost and manpower. God forbid Russia did actually behave as the caricature the Western elite portray Russia as, because it’d likely be your family and friends from Zionsville, Indiana or Lehigh Acres, Florida being deployed to the frontlines to stop the massive Russian tank and tactical nuclear force from rolling into Moldova, Estonia, or even Poland.
This is an unethical and unfair deal for the United States. America’s leaders should not wish to see Poland or any other Eastern European state subsumed by an irredentist Russia. But, at the same time, we should not be on the hook for what is fundamentally an Eastern European problem. It’s one thing to back a powerful Europe up in the event of hostilities, but it is an entirely different thing to blindly commit the United States to fighting a war for states that are wealthy, prosperous, and otherwise capable of defending themselves but choose against doing so.
Whether Poland opts to operate in the larger framework of an EU defense force, or within the confines of the Viségrad Battle Group that is nominally a part of the EU defense forces but basically a vehicle adhering to the needs and wishes of the Viségrad regional states is irrelevant. The states most directly threatened by Russia would have a viable defense–and it would be a defense that did not require the United States to shoulder the burden.
A Viségrad-wide ABM system beginning in Poland is but the first step toward regional security. This will weaken the threat of Russian nuclear arms. However, the coup de grace toward preventing further Russian aggression in Eastern Europe would be in the form of nuclear proliferation to a fellow democracy like Poland. Historical and cultural animosity between the Russians and Poles imply that the Russians would likely be far more reserved in committing to greater aggression in Europe if they knew their old nemesis, the Poles, had both ABM systems and a nascent nuclear arsenal. Whatever the Russian dream for rehabilitating its old sphere of influence in the region may be, the presence of a robust, sub-regional defense in the hands of local actors would be enough to curb Russia’s most aggressive tendencies.
The mere threat of a Polish bomb might be enough to end the current escalation of hostility between the West and Russia in Eastern Europe. After the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Ukraine had a massive arsenal of nuclear arms. During the Clinton Administration, the United States worked tirelessly to ensure that the Ukrainians gave up those nuclear weapons. The Ukrainians have a long and tense history with their cousins in Russia (Kiev, Ukraine’s capital was the springboard of Russian culture seven centuries ago). They bore the brunt of Soviet oppression during the Cold War years, too. With their freedom recently returned, the Ukrainians were understandably reticent to give up their inherited nuclear arsenal, believing that those weapons were the only thing standing between them and a future Russian invasion. To goad the Ukrainians into giving up those weapons, the Clinton Administration committed the United States to using its own force to protect Ukraine from any future Russian incursion. The Ukrainians hesitantly complied.
The Ukrainians were right to resist abandoning the nuclear arsenal they inherited. No one truly believed that the United States would send its young men and women to fight and die for Ukrainian sovereignty against a nuclear-armed Russia. Does anyone seriously believe that Ukraine would be in the tenuous position it is in today had they kept the nuclear arsenal they inherited from the Soviets?
Poland, Estonia, Moldova, et al. are similarly threatened by Russia today. While I still believe that diplomacy and trade is the West’s best path toward stabilizing their relations with Russia, conferring nuclear capabilities onto Poland along with ABM systems would strengthen the Western position at the negotiating table. George F. Kennan was correct when he observed that the Russians respond only to the logic of force.
Right now, there is little cost and great reward for the Kremlin to continue agitating for more territory–despite whatever weaknesses may exist in Russia today (and there are a great many weaknesses indeed). By adding a little missile defense and some nuclear capabilities to Poland’s arsenal (and if Poland shared those capabilities with the other Viségrad Battle Group members), Russian action would be indefinitely deferred.
3. The Best Defense Rests in Actual Defensive Systems, Not Treaties
Looking back at the history of the Cold War, one finds that the endless list of arms control treaties that the United States and Soviet Union entered into produced mixed results. Very often, the United States entered into agreements that fundamentally weakened its technological superiority over time and gave the Soviet Union a fighting chance, should the Cold War ever turn hot. Before the first Soviet atomic test in Kazakhstan in 1949, the United States enjoyed hegemony from the end of the Second World War in 1945 until 1949.
However, the United States began rapidly losing out to the Soviets, not because the Soviets were better in technological development, but because they simply wanted to best the United States more than we wanted to best them. The Soviets behaved as the revolutionaries they always were–using international norms and rules to protect their power whilst using those same rules and norms as a cudgel to destroy their enemies (principally, the United States). There is little doubt that the arms control agreements of the Nixon era were borne out of a need to cool things down internationally at a time when America was rapidly losing its geopolitical position, thanks to Vietnam. But, the agreements America often entered into with the Soviets were only worth the paper they were printed on–in other words, they were completely worthless. The Soviets would agree to limitations on arms development, get the positive press of having signed those agreements, rest easy knowing that America would fully follow the terms of the agreement, and then the Soviets would happily press on developing the very same capabilities they agreed that they’d stop developing.
Just look at the Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) Treaty signed between former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. In that case, the two powers agreed to no longer develop ABM systems in an effort to uphold the suicide pact that was Mutual Assured Destruction. Yet, by the time the agreement was signed, the Soviets had long ago developed and fielded their own ABM system (the aforementioned Galosh network around Moscow). While it was rudimentary, it was more usable than anything the Americans had developed or fielded until that point. Making a deal with any hostile foreign power today–whether it be Russia, China, or even Cuba–should be done in the context of overwhelming American strength. In the case of Russia in Eastern Europe, it should be done in the context of our European partners having devastating indigenous military capabilities–and political will to use those capabilities if threatened (in the case of Poland and several Eastern European states, they possess such a will).
Arms control should never have been viewed as the sine qua non of effective foreign policymaking. Nuclear deterrence and arms control were the result of America’s once-strong military position being eroded by the Soviets over the course of several decades. Had the United States merely doubled down on its commitment to developing ABM systems; had we tripled down on building better and more numerous nuclear weapons from 1949 onward–coupled with a strategy of compellence rather than deterrence–the United States would not have suffered through the hardships of the Cold War the way it did.
But, that was yesterday. Today, we should learn from our mistakes in the Cold War. We must recognize that:
a) the United States cannot and should not do all of the heavy lifting when it comes to deterring future Russian aggression;
b) NATO remains an unreliable partner;
c) local actors are the key to curbing Russian irredentism;
d) treaties are only as good as the paper they’re written on. They must be backed up by credible force. Right now, the West’s threats against Russia are not credible.
The Americans are not on the same page as their NATO partners, and the divisions within NATO on the issue of Russia are simply too numerous to list (mainly, though, both the Eastern Europeans and the Nordic states feel threatened by Russia and want to act while the Southern and Western Europeans could care less). America has not committed (and won’t) the adequate levels of force to believably deter Russia from greater aggression either. And the NATO troops committed to preventing another Russian invasion are also insufficient. By focusing on Poland and the Viségrad Battle Group, we can reassure our allies and deter our rivals–or better yet, our allies who are directly threatened by the Russians could reassure their people and deter their rivals with little input from the distant Americans.
So, go ahead, give Poland ABM systems and nuclear arms. The Russians will then be more amiable at the diplomatic table. Then we can all focus on the bigger issues: terrorism, the rise of China, and the nuclear rogue states of North Korea and Iran. Until we can disabuse ourselves of the Russian bogeyman, we will continue to lose ground geopolitically to China–a state that is a far greater rival than anything we face today.