Trump’s New Start With Russia May Prove Better Than Obama’s

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This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Febraury 13, 2017. Click here to view the original article.

By John Bolton
February 13, 2017

Media tittle-tattle about President Trump’s telephone calls with foreign counterparts received new fuel last week after details leaked of a conversation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The usual anonymous sources alleged that when Mr. Putin raised the 2010 New Start arms-control treaty, Mr. Trump asked his aides what it covered—and then, once briefed, declared it to be one of those bad Obama deals he planned to renegotiate.

If so, Mr. Trump got the treaty right. From America’s perspective, New Start is an execrable deal, a product of Cold War nostrums about reducing nuclear tensions. Arms-control treaties, properly conceived and drafted, should look like George W. Bush’s 2002 Treaty of Moscow: short (three pages), with broad exit ramps and sunset provisions.

Although President Obama had considerable help from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in this diplomatic failure, Russia was hardly blameless. Moscow subsequently exploited the treaty’s weaknesses to rebuild and modernize its arsenal of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, while Mr. Obama stood idly by. Republican senators opposed New Start’s ratification, 26-13 (three of them didn’t vote), as did 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Mr. Trump’s remarks are therefore squarely in the party’s mainstream.

Not so, however, are some of Mr. Trump’s comments—or at least the inferences drawn from them—on Mr. Putin’s political and military adventurism in Europe. Many Republicans worry that, rather than strengthening the international economic sanctions imposed on Russia for its belligerent incursions into eastern Ukraine and its 2014 annexation of Crimea, Mr. Trump may reduce or rescind sanctions entirely.

This apparent difference is no small matter. Legislation to codify the existing sanctions is pending in Congress. It has overwhelming—most analysts think veto-proof—bipartisan support. Commentators wonder whether the remarkable Republican solidarity on Mr. Trump’s cabinet nominations might be shattered if Russia policy is the first area in which the new administration faces off with the Republican congressional majorities.

The sanctions on Russia for its interference in Ukraine are already under assault in Europe: Germany, France and others appear close to succumbing to their apparently hard-wired inclination to sacrifice geostrategic imperatives for economic ones. Elections across the Continent this year may produce results even more favorable to Moscow (possibly, in part, because of Russian meddling). By contrast, the Baltic republics and other NATO members in Eastern and Central Europe are alarmed that Russia’s adventurism would increase if its Ukraine aggression were brushed aside and sanctions lifted.

Yet amid the breathless press accounts about Mr. Trump’s purported fancy for Mr. Putin, one thing is clear: The Trump administration’s policy toward, and even its strategic assessment of, Russia is still under construction. Most important, if the substance of Mr. Trump’s comments on New Start was accurately reported, it shows him resisting items on Mr. Putin’s wish list, and not for the first time.

Mr. Trump has, for example, unequivocally opposed Mr. Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. On Feb. 1, National Security Adviser Mike Flynn put Iran “on notice” that the deal was on life support. New U.S. sanctions against Iran underlined the point. The White House is reportedly considering listing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, which should have been done decades ago. Such a move would have a significant political and economic effect on Moscow’s military-industrial complex, particularly Rosoboronexport, its international arms-sales agency.

Washington should be also push back against Russia’s inserting itself militarily and politically into the Middle East by using the Syria conflict as a wedge. While Ukraine may seem an unrelated issue, it is not. Moscow’s diplomatic efforts to “solve” the Syrian conflict are in substantial part an effort to “help” Europe with the Syrian refugee problem, providing yet another inducement to wobbly Europeans to roll back sanctions. Any perceived American weakness on the sanctions would embolden Russian efforts to further penetrate the Middle East, increasing the dangerous, destabilizing effects of Moscow’s tacit alliance with Iran.

Significantly, Mr. Trump has said he doesn’t know what his relationship with Mr. Putin will ultimately be, and he must surely recognize that national interests, not personal chemistry, underlie great-power foreign policies. America doesn’t sacrifice its national-security bottom line just because a foreign leader “may smile, and smile.”

So let’s raise our glasses to Mr. Trump’s disdain for New Start, not to mention the Iran nuclear deal, and hope for more of the same. The new president ought to strengthen the sanctions, reassure NATO allies (while juicing them to meet their commitments on military spending), and then have coffee with Vlad. Negotiate only from positions of strength.

Mr. Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).