Foreign Policy in Focus
Interview with Lawrence Wilkerson
September 5, 2019
Interview with Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of
staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and current Distinguished Adjunct
Professor of Government and Public Policy in the Government Department of the
College of William and Mary.
Emanuel Pastreich: What is the current status of the
Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on nuclear weapons?
Lawrence Wilkerson: As
you know, the United States pulled out of the INF medium-range nuclear weapons
treaty with Russia in August and it plans a substantial buildup of these
destabilizing weapons, above all in East Asia. This move is dangerous.
The INF Treaty was far from perfect, but it had a broad appeal,
including an appeal to many in the military, because it simply made sense.
That treaty between the United States and Russia encompassed all
missiles, nuclear or conventional, ballistic or cruise, that had a range of
between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. When the INF Treaty was signed in 1987, it
helped to slow down a dangerous arms race. For the first time since the Cold
War started, an entire class of nuclear weapons was eliminated.
Pastreich: Why do you think the
United States withdrew?
no longer live in a rational world in which policy makers take a
scientific approach to risk. Rather, policy making is dominated by
irrational figures like John Bolton, the president’s national security advisor,
a man who hates arms control with a passion, who spends his days trying to find
ways to undo the few restrictions that remain, and who would plunge the world
into a completely new nuclear arms race.
This time, however, the competition won’t be bilateral, just
between the United States and the USSR. This time the race will be global, and
we will see a nightmare world of instability, with a renewed risk of a nuclear
holocaust as a result.
Pastreich: What’s the background
behind this drastic shift in American policy?
now there are a huge number of intermediate range missiles stationed in Fujian
Province, and elsewhere in southern China, which are aimed at Taiwan. We’re
talking about a missile for just about every square meter of every viable
target in Taiwan. China was never a signatory to the INF Treaty because at the
time its missile capacity was minimal and its nuclear weapons policy, which was
set by Mao Zedong, was one of sufficiency to deter.
If there was a valid reason for the United States to withdraw
from the current INF Treaty, it was this change in China’s missile arsenal.
China is most likely contemplating a new doctrine with regard to the use of
nuclear weapons. That change has little to do with Russia and everything to do
with the pressing need for a new nuclear weapons arms control regime.
Pastreich: You mean that China’s
actions were a reason for the United States to withdraw?
part, the changes in China were a factor. And Russia has been
“cheating” with respect to the INF Treaty. Even more dangerous is Russia’s
publication of a military doctrine calling for blunting NATO’s advantage in
PGMs [precision guided munitions] by using short-range nuclear strikes. Russia
has been building a missile inventory necessary to accomplish this doctrine.
There are of course other aspects of the problem. We find a
mutual abuse of the INF Treaty, such as the United States putting ABM defenses
and troops in former Warsaw Pact countries, thus moving the borders of NATO so
that they are smack up against Russia’s “near abroad.” And now the United
States refuses to talk about almost anything with Russia.
We see the proliferation of medium-range missiles among
non-signatory countries (China, DPRK, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.) and also
violations of the INF Treaty by both the original treaty signatories, who also
happen to be the owners of the vast preponderance of nuclear weapons.
Pastreich: What do you think that
should the United States have done then?
the United States kept complaining about what was imperfect about the treaty,
but it made no effort to create something better, to fashion and gain support
for an entirely new and more comprehensive nuclear arms control regime.
Instead, what the United States is accomplishing is the launch
of a far more virulent arms race, one that could lead, some would argue
inevitably, to the use of nuclear weapons in war.
It would have made better sense to maintain the treaty, or to
declare it obsolete, in a bipartisan manner, and, in either case, to open
negotiations to expand the treaty so as to include all nations that possess
extensive stockpiles of intermediate range missiles—particularly those that
also possessing nuclear weapon capability. From the point of view of smart arms
control, of our children’s future, and of the security of the United States and
of the world, such an expanded and modernized, treaty would make perfect sense.
But Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, doesn’t do
arms control. Moreover, Trump himself seems to disdain multilateral
arrangements, sensible negotiations, and the type of astute diplomacy required
to accomplish either. He seems to more-or-less follow Bolton and his desire for
“a little nuclear war.” While campaigning, Trump even suggested he believed the
world would be better off if there were more, not fewer, nuclear weapons, and
states that possessed them.
Pastreich: What can be done now to
correct this mistake?
think you mean, given these clear realities what can be done to modify the
behavior of an administration that has been opposed to arms control from the
very start and that has done more and will do more to damage arms control
efforts than any previous administration? How will we convince John Bolton and
Mike Pompeo, who made their careers by opposing rational arms control treaties,
that they don’t need to abandon treaties but should rather expand them,
multi-lateralize them, and seek new ones that do even more than the old ones
If we are talking about these individuals alone, the task is
hopeless. They are beyond redemption. But democratic politics is not simply
about individuals, whether it be presidents, national security advisors, or
otherwise. There are cases in American history where extremist politicians have
been brought into line by a shift in the mood and in the culture and by a
weigh-in by the demos in
accordance with such shifts.
What we need is to create again in Washington DC a nuclear arms
control environment, a culture in which responsibility and strict regulation of
nuclear weapons—and other weapons, as in the Conventional Forces in Europe
Treaty—is accepted as a necessity. We need to ensure that such a development is
a natural occurrence, that it is something that is not disdained, but rather
At the end of the day, we need to negotiate a series of treaties
that form a global overlapping system that includes all classes of nuclear
weapons. We need to bring into this process pariah states like Israel and North
Korea. Achieving that goal requires us to be tough at times. We must be ready
to take a strong stand to insist that all nuclear weapon states must join the
regime that will be established.
Pastreich: What is the thinking about
nonproliferation and disarmament in the U.S. military?
military makes the challenge even greater because there are large factions in
the military who are hankering for a new nuclear arms race. Those generals and
admirals want more money, and they want to build more missiles. Doing so will
allow them to get their hands on some of the trillion-plus dollars allotted for
new nuclear weapons by former President Obama.
Those officers want all sorts of nuclear and non-nuclear
missiles, but the diversity in their demands does not mean that they are
strategically imaginative. They are not.
All they want is more, more, and a little more. But we should
also remember that there are some clear thinkers and some brave people devoted
to the common good mixed in with them. They see the handwriting on the wall and
they wish to avert nuclear war.
President Trump is highly susceptible to the military’s siren
call. The president has painted himself into multiple corners, and he seems to
feel that he desperately needs the military to be president of the United
States. Since he now faces opposition at almost every level of government and
increasingly within the country, loyalty has become his first priority. He
perceives the military to be overwhelmingly loyal to him and he wants to reward
This relationship between Trump and the military is dangerous
because Trump is so ignorant about diplomacy and security, and at the same time
he is increasingly desperate in his search for support. He does not care about
global warming or nuclear war, but he is obsessed with his political standing.
He desires above all to have people who will gather around him and listen to
him speak. He is ultimately concerned with holding on to power.
Moreover, nuclear missiles, in particular, offer big juicy
contracts that are not subject to much external review, and they empower the
president—who is the one who can decide on his own whether or not to use them.
So these weapons also feed Trump’s ego.
But anyone with any understanding of nuclear weapons knows how
close we have come to nuclear war in the past—even with treaties in place.
Sadly, most educated citizens have no idea how different a world we will be
living in once the nuclear weapon genie escapes from its bottle, especially as
there is a whole new group of nations like Germany, Turkey, Iran, Japan, South
Korea, Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, and so on, that have either in the past
shown a desire for nuclear weapons or who could join in a future nuclear arms
Pastreich: The decision to
withdraw from the INF treaty, and other agreements like the ABM Treaty, while
simultaneously increasing the number of short-range nuclear missiles, seems as
if it was made in meetings among Bolton, Pompeo and Trump, with some input from
the military. There were few, if any, congressional committees who debated the
new policies, or summoned experts on nonproliferation for
unhealthy policy-making process seems to be intrinsic to the Trump
administration. But the shift has been taking place for some time. The cause is
not necessarily Trump.
H.L. Mencken wrote back in 1920 that one day, “…the White House
will be adorned by a downright moron.” Although that prediction was uncanny, it
was not a matter of chance.
The current crescendo of incompetence is the product of a
long-term structural and statutory shift that has encouraged a dysfunctional
We can see Trump’s arbitrary use of power as the logical
conclusion of the centralization of national security decision-making in the
White House that dates back to the 1947 National Security Act. This
concentration of power in the White House, and the decline of the power of the
president’s cabinet, as well as of the powerful congressional committees run by
highly educated and focused political leaders like Jacob Javits or James
Fulbright, have profoundly altered the process by which policy is formulated
and decisions are made.
The next step came after Ronald Reagan both consolidated power
in the executive and stripped other parts of the federal government of budgets
and authority. He created a new policy landscape that was readily made use of
by H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, with some slight
variations. So, the original balance of powers among Congress, the judiciary,
and the executive described in the constitution existed only by dint of
institutional inertia. That balance was ready to be torn down—and was torn down
like a rotten tree—by Trump’s people.
Pastreich: How does this institutional
shift relate to the seemingly endless wars the United States is involved in?
members of Congress—and particularly powerful committee chairmen—are backed to
the hilt by Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, BAE, Grumman, General Dynamics,
and other military contractors who are pursuing big-budget contracts with the
government. This trend is true for both parties, but the Republicans practice
it with greater abandonment. The coffers of these Congress members are
essentially filled up by lobbyists who represent these merchants of war.
Pastreich: Although it seems
irrelevant to lobbyists and influence peddlers, the constitution is supposed to
be the manual that determines how the Federal government is run.
three branches of government are co-equal, but the legislative branch was
clearly meant to be primus inter pares, and
James Madison was quite adamant on that point.
The executive has become the overwhelmingly dominant branch. And
now you have a specially selected Supreme Court and a court system that
basically approves all of the executive branch’s actions, domestic and foreign.
The Congress, especially the Republican-dominated Senate, is incapable of
overriding the president. At this very moment, the Republicans in the Senate
and the White House are conspiring to keep the House of Representatives from
reclaiming the war powers that the constitution grants to Congress.
That battle is but the small end of the sword, if you will. The
big end is that if we do go to war with Iran, for example, it will be without
any congressional input, whatsoever. The latest disaster for the United States
will be perpetrated by the executive branch alone, without any accountability.
That is the degree to which the decision-making process with regard to war has
been usurped by the president.
Of course, saying that decision-making is centralized in the
White House is not the entire story. That White House we see today was created
by, and takes its marching orders from, a predatory and transnational
capitalist state where defense contractors, investment bankers, and hedge fund
billionaires call the shots. Then there is big oil, big food, and big energy.
Needless to say, having the decision-making so centralized makes it much easier
for the big money from these groups to have impact than would be the case if
decision-making were spread across the cabinet or across the government. Also,
there is no moment in the process when anyone asks what the national interest
is, what the long-term implications are.
Pastreich: Let’s come back to
China for a moment. What are the risks for America here?
let’s consider what the role of the United States should be—and, not just about
juicy military budgets resulting from the China threat.
These days the United States is just a disruptor in Asia, and an
unintelligent disruptor at that. We swing from cooing “I love you, Kim Jong Un”
to imposing vicious tariffs on Chinese goods to creating a major embarrassment
for Japanese Prime Minister Abe when he tried to help out with Iran.
And most of us were shocked to see Trump mocking how Japanese
speak and how Koreans speak. That was the president of the United States! He
was not speaking to Prime Minister Abe or to President Moon, but to a racist
audience at home and for strictly domestic political purposes.
But to a certain degree the future role of the United States in
East Asia will be determined by power dynamics in the region as much as by U.S.
policy. Some Americans might want to stay, to be a hegemon in Northeast Asia
forever. But that is not a sustainable policy. There is a desperate need for
the United States to find a middle ground, a course that preserves some
essential American influence within a cooperative framework. The competition
with China, and other powers, is going to be substantial at all levels, and
simply painting China as a bogeyman is not going to do the trick.
First, we need to go back to good old-fashioned diplomacy. That
is more important than any fighter plane or missile. No state is going to fare
well in a hot war, or even in a new cold war. We need to use our creativity to
shape a culture that supports arms treaties, disarmament, and peace in
general—peaceful competition, if you will. And we must build an off-ramp that
allows America to dismount the imperial train and steer away from global
hegemony and towards global cooperation.
Oddly enough, I think Trump is – very inexpertly, imperfectly,
and probably unknowingly – digging out the foundations for such a new
collaborative order through his destructive fits. He calls into question the
value of NATO, and the so-called deep state is immediately up in arms. So,
although Trump may be doing many destructive things, he is also drawing
attention to the anachronism that NATO has become post-Cold War. The alliance
no longer has any purpose except to seek out trouble “out of area” to justify
We need to have the courage to discuss how we will bring back
U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, and under what circumstances. We cannot
consider that discussion a taboo topic. We also need to use our imagination,
and our commitment, to create a regional order that assures the continued
security of the Korean Peninsula without
that U.S. troop presence.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. If the United States wants to
maintain its influence in East Asia, its needs plans to bring its troops back
from other parts of East Asia, including Japan and particularly Okinawa. We
will be much better off if we take the initiative than if we are pushed out by
some disaster or another.
And in terms of policy change, I am not just talking about
security issues. The United States today is flat-out bankrupt, with a $22
trillion debt. Annual interest payments on that debt added to the annual
military budget will zero-out all other discretionary federal spending in less
than a decade. We just did something unprecedented: we printed billions of
dollars under the Quantitative Easing program with absolutely nothing behind
those dollars except the paper and ink on which they were printed. We have no
earthly idea what such profligacy will produce in the future. We have new security
challenges like a changing climate and we had better start saving money, and
learning to respond to new security challenges, in a manner that does not
require such an expensive military instrument.
Pastreich: How can the United
States fashion a different strategy for engaging with the world?
Richard Haass threw out the concept of “integration” back in 2001 in his
discussions with his Policy Planning staff. He thought that “integration” was
the best one-word substitution for “containment.” For Haass, integration was a
concept that offered an alternative to globalization and its demand for
unending expansion and extraction. Haass did not like the concept of
globalization, and I think he was right.
Globalization has happened before, in the 1890s, for example.
But globalization brings contradictions and tensions that are dangerous. What
is going on today goes beyond globalization. What we see happening today is
integration: integration of trade, integration of society, integration of
culture. That integration is at times mean, disruptive, hateful, and dangerous,
but it’s happening.
Trade is where we observe the most profound integration. For
example, the United States cannot make a sophisticated piece of military
equipment any longer without employing foreign components.
But Trump is heading in the opposite direction. He wants to take
apart trade agreements and institutions, to disintegrate, not to integrate,
trade. And he thinks that somehow the destruction of global institutions will
save “white America.”