What Arms Race?

Congratulating Putin was not the most important thing said on a call President Trump made to Russian President Vladimir Putin:

“President Trump did not follow specific warnings from his national security advisers Tuesday when he congratulated Russian President Vladi­mir Putin on his reelection — including a section in his briefing materials in all-capital letters stating “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” according to officials familiar with the call.”

Trump’s National Security Advisers Warned Him Not To Congratulate Putin. He Did It Anyway” | The Washington Post | Carol D. Leonnig, David Nakamura, Josh Dawsey | 03/20/2018

Rather, it was mentioning that he and Putin would meet soon to “discuss the arms race”:

“I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory – his electoral victory. The call had to do, also, with the fact that we will probably get together in the not-too-distant future so that we can discuss arms, we can discuss the arms race. As you know, he made a statement that being in an arms race is not a great thing. That was right after the election – one of the first statements he made.

And we are spending $700 billion this year on our military, and a lot of it is that we are going to remain stronger than any other nation in the world by far.

We had a very good call, and I suspect that we’ll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control, but we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have.”

Remarks by President Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Before Bilateral Meeting” | whitehouse.gov | 03/20/2018

Precision with English isn’t one of Trump’s strengths. However, he is a master of imprecision, so it’s possible he’s intentionally using “arms race” in one or several senses:

1) Conventional Weapons

Trump didn’t actually say “nuclear” in his comments, so it’s possible he meant a race to produce more planes, ships, tanks, subs, etc. However, in the past “arms race” rarely suggested anything other than nuclear weapons. There is a conventional arms race he could be referring to, but it’s not really between the U.S. and Russia. It’s among countries buying American and/or Russian made military hardware. Recall the massive arms deals made with countries such as Saudi Arabia and the weapons Iran purchases from Russia. Saudi Arabia purchases weapons from both the U.S. and Russia. Russia’s presence in Syria seemed as much about arms sales as about propping up the Assad regime.

2) Money

Trump is banking on weapons production and sales as a revenue stream (and a source of manufacturing jobs) for the U.S. Likewise, Russia needs new cash flows to offset low oil prices and the effects of Western sanctions.

3) Nuclear weapons

This is at once the scariest and most ridiculous reading of Trump’s “arms race” comment, given that nuclear powers have scaled back their numbers seven-fold.


Nuclear warhead stockpiles of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, 1945-2014. (Wikimedia Commons)

The current stockpiles of the world’s nuclear powers can end civilization as we know it. But despite Trump once suggesting the U.S. nuclear arsenal ramp back up to 60s era levels, in the nuclear sense there is no arms race. It was won a long time ago. 10,000 nuclear weapons won’t make us any safer or deader than 1,000.

Then there’s the cost of maintaining and modernizing them—at least a $1 trillion.

Think of what $1 trillion could do. We could ease the economic burdens on middle class families by lightening the load of health care and education costs. We could invest in the sorts of soft power efforts that are cheaper and more effective than approaches that might require Secretary Matis to buy more bullets. Or we could make direct investments in infrastructure, instead of the sleight-of-hand “public-private partnerships” the President has been pitching. We could build bridges, water systems, hospitals, schools, and a digital infrastructure the rest of the word would envy.

Whatever the intended meaning of “arms race”, I can only think of it as a massive mis-allocation of funds race.


IMAGE SOURCE: U.S. Navy photo by General Dynamics Electric Boat [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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