Gallows Humor in the New Cold War

Last November I lamented ‘The Lost Art of Arms Control,‘ the abject failure to build on the platform left by the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, and US President Ronald Reagan, who famously urged Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall dividing Europe into nuclear-armed camps.

Nearly 30 years after German reunification, that legacy of trust and disarmament is in tatters, and Europe split again into hostile military blocs actively planning and practicing – at vast cost – suicidal levels of conventional and atomic violence. The blame for this recurring nightmare can be widely spread, but the final assault on arms control – the necessary foundation of any ‘house of peace’ in Europe – is being led by a man future historians may well depict as ‘vandal-in-chief’: President Donald Trump’s widely-despised National Security Adviser, John Bolton, a self-declared ‘truth-teller’ long determined to ‘tear down’ the ‘wall’ of treaties supposedly keeping America from the full exercise of its unrivaled power.

Berlin Wall, 1 December 1989 (Photo by Aad van der Drift [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Berlin Wall, 1 December 1989 (Photo by Aad van der Drift, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2001, as then-President George W. Bush’s anti-anti-arms control undersecretary of state for arms control, Bolton went to Moscow to announce US withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty which limited each side to highly-restricted missile defenses on the sane premise that ‘shields’ only encourage more ‘swords,’ that such ‘defenses’ act not as brakes but accelerators of the arms race. But in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bolton assumed America could move safely – against a humiliated Russia, helpless to stop the eastward expansion of NATO – to grasp the Holy Grail of nuclear supremacy.

In 2018, in the service of another American president, Bolton has set his sights on the Intermediate Nuclear-Forces (INF) Treaty, signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987 and banning all ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with a 500- to 5,500-kilometer range. The Treaty sealed the fate of 2,692 such missiles – all based in Europe, all designed to ‘strike first’ in any war – opening the path to ‘deep détente.’ That is, to drastic cuts in both shorter- and longer-range nuclear forces, as well as conventional and chemical weapons, coupled with concerted preparations for a new, cooperative, demilitarized security order in Europe and beyond.

But during an October 23 press conference at the Interfax News Agency, Bolton dismissed concerns about the US withdrawal from the INF, with a fondly recalled joke from 17 years earlier:

In 2001, we used to have a joke with respect to the ABM treaty that on computer screens in media offices all over the world, whenever someone typed “the ABM treaty of 1972,” there was a key that the reporter only had to hit the one key, and it would type out, “the cornerstone of international strategic stability.” It was like one word: “The ABM treaty of 1972, the cornerstone of international strategic stability.” So if you take away the cornerstone the entire construct of international stability collapses. It was not true. It was not true then, it will not be true now with the withdrawal from this treaty.

For Vladimir Putin, who had become president of Russia in 2000, the end of the ABM Treaty was no joke. Putin viewed the 1972 Treaty as key to the superpowers’ nuclear relationship, and its loss convinced Russia that serious disarmament – strengthening the ‘shield,’ weakening the ‘sword’ – would be seriously dangerous.


Following the ABM withdrawal, Bush announced plans – ostensibly to counter implausible threats from Iran and North Korea – to deploy land-based Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) systems in Europe, sensors and interceptors designed (if imperfectly tested) to detect and destroy long-range missiles only, ineffective against the very missiles – flying much lower, for much less time – banned by the INF Treaty. Rubbing salt in Moscow’s wound, some of the interceptors were themselves medium-range rockets, potentially able to deliver conventional or nuclear ‘payloads.’

Meanwhile China – motivated mainly by concern over US missile defense, but alarming both Washington and Moscow – was building up its land-based, intermediate-range nuclear forces. And while Bolton stated at Interfax that “universalizing” the INF Treaty to include China and other nuclear-weapon states was attempted “as far back as 2004,” the main reason those “efforts all failed” was the impossibility, for obvious reasons, of expanding the ABM Treaty regime.

By 2007, Putin concluded the INF Treaty was more millstone than milestone, a calculus unaltered by US President Barack Obama’s modest scaling back of Bush’s BMD plans (which did not include the offer of a new ABM Treaty).

In 2010, Obama and then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev (who served one term as president with Putin, who was barred by the Russian Constitution from serving three consecutive terms as president, as his prime minister) signed the New START Treaty, agreeing to reduce strategic warheads by a third, to 1,550 each (still enough to comfortably destroy the planet). Upon returning to the Kremlin in 2012, Putin rebuffed the White House’s plea for deeper reductions, in part because, to drive New START through Congress, Obama made a mockery of his rhetorical commitment to a nuclear-weapon-free world by approving a 30-year, $1 trillion ‘modernization’ of the strategic ‘triad’ of land-, sea- and air-launched weapons.

In 2014, the US alleged Moscow was violating the New START Treaty by testing a more powerful version of its nuclear-capable 9K720 Iskander short-range missile (itself reportedly capable of grazing the forbidden 500-kilometer range). Recently deployed in Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, the Iskander “effectively replaces” a “nuclear-tipped ballistic missile,” the SS-23 Spider, “eliminated” in 1987. The new version, however – the 9K729, which the Pentagon claims was deployed last year – is apparently a fully-fledged INF system.

Moscow denies the charge, demanding Washington present detailed technical evidence to the Treaty’s Special Verification Commission (SVC), while insisting US ‘anti-missile’ missiles, together with land-launched armed drones, are themselves violations. And as many commentators note, Bolton has been urging US withdrawal from the INF Treaty since 2011 — long before the Iskander controversy — and has long been a critic of extending New START by mutual consent, as the Treaty allows, from its present expiry date of 2021 until 2026.

Given that the US already possesses (and is busily developing) sea- and air-launched INF weapons, given that the collapse of the Treaty will allow Russia to openly deploy whatever land-based INF weapons it wants (while blaming America for walking away), and given the negligible prospect of European NATO states agreeing to oblige Trump by basing first-strike nuclear weapons on their territory, the real motive for withdrawal seems clear: to set the stage for a world with no limits on US or Russian nuclear weapons for the first time since 1972, creating the conditions for a ‘fair fight’ Bolton believes only one side can win.


But Bolton is not alone in that belief.

Since Trump took office, two major Pentagon reviews (on overall National Defense Strategy and a Nuclear Posture Review) assumed the likelihood of major conflict in coming decades between the US and Russia and/or China — war(s) that America must plan to win on land, at sea, in the air and in space, with all available means, conventional and nuclear. In such a viciously competitive context, arms control appears a Russian ruse or Chinese ploy.

Vladimir Putin and John Bolton, Kremlin, 23 October 2018 ( [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Vladimir Putin and John Bolton, 23 October 2018 (, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The current issue of Foreign Affairs, devoted to the remarkable question ‘Do Nuclear Weapons Matter?,’ features a succinct summary of Trump administration thinking by Elbridge Colby, until recently deputy assistant defense secretary for strategy under Defense Secretary Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis.

Under the Dr. Strangelove-ian  title ‘If You Want Peace, Prepare for Nuclear War,’ Colby, now director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, outlines a ‘Strategy for the New Great-Power Rivalry,’ a program of unilateral American nuclear proliferation certain to shatter not just the ‘cornerstone’ nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – obligating (since 1970!) the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain to reduce, de-emphasize and eliminate their arsenals – but also the 73-year-old taboo against nuclear use. “Instead” of a perpetual vow of nuclear celibacy, Colby writes:

The United States needs weapons systems that can bridge the wide gulf between conventional and all-out nuclear war. In particular, Washington should step up its efforts to develop low-yield tactical nuclear weapons and associated strategies that could blunt or help defeat a Russian or Chinese attack on U.S. allies without provoking a nuclear apocalypse.

There are, it seems, ‘good nukes’ and ‘bad nukes,’ nukes we can use and monsters we must never unmuzzle. By ‘low yield’ and ‘tactical,’ however, Colby means short-range weapons with a yield of up to 5 kilotons, one third of the Hiroshima blast, devastating ‘battlefield’ bombs of which Russia already has thousands and NATO hundreds. If one side ever exercised what Colby insanely calls “palatable options for limited and effective” nuclear use, the chances the other side would not respond in kind are slim to nil: to paraphrase Shakespeare, such atomic “sorrows” would not come “singly, but in battalions.” At which point, the pressure to move up the ‘ladder’ of escalation would be immense; and Colby, like Bolton, wants as many ‘rungs’ in place  as possible, including those removed 30 years ago by the INF Treaty.


Greeting Bolton at the Kremlin, Putin tried a joke of his own:

“As far as I can recall, the US coat of arms depicts an eagle holding 13 arrows in one talon, with 13 olives in the other. Question: Did your eagle eat all the olives, leaving only arrows?”

“I didn’t,” Bolton conceded, “bring any more olives.” “

“I thought so,” Putin smirked.

Five days before, at the annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, Putin was in an equally merry mood, cracking what he called an “old” joke:

Question: ‘How do you relax?’

Answer: ‘I am relaxed.’

He’d been asked about the personal toll of acute “geopolitical tensions”: “look,” he continued, “we live in a world where security relies on nuclear capability,” and “we are improving our attack systems as an answer to the United States building its missile defense system. So, we feel confidence in this sense.”

He then boasted about Russia’s revolutionary Avangard ‘hypersonic’ intercontinental nuclear ‘glider’, and a “missile early warning system” allowing him to “know for certain, and this takes a few seconds,” whether an “attack” was under way. “Of course,” he admitted, what he’d next be forced to do would amount “to a global catastrophe.”

[A]ny aggressor should know that retaliation is inevitable and they [that is, tens of millions of innocent civilians] will be annihilated. And we as the victims of an aggression, we as martyrs would go to paradise while they simply perish because they won’t even have time to repent of their sins.

Presumably another joke (nervous laughter in the auditorium); but beneath it a sense that even if the worst happens, the ‘martyrs’ would not die in vain, the homeland somehow survive:

We are not going anywhere, we have a vast territory, and we do not need anything from anyone. It has always been this way, at all times in the history of our state. It runs in the blood of our people. In this sense, we are confident and calm.


But the basic point of the nuclear age is that ‘it’ – the fate of the Earth – has never depended on us ‘this way’ before, and two of the principal architects of the INF Treaty, Gorbachev and Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz, are currently anything but ‘confident and calm.’ In a grief-stricken piece in The New York Times on October 25, the ailing 87-year old Gorbachev showed his customary grasp of fundamentals, arguing that while “a new nuclear arms race has begun,” the “INF Treaty is not the first victim” of the renewed “militarization of world affairs,” citing as decisive acts of vandalism US withdrawal from two successful and effective accords, the ABM Treaty and the Iran nuclear deal. In addition, he points to the Washington-led trend toward “soaring” military expenditures:

The United States has in effect taken the initiative in destroying the entire system of international treaties and accords that served as the underlying foundation for peace and security following World War II. Yet I am convinced that those who hope to benefit from a global free-for-all are deeply mistaken. There will be no winner in a ‘war of all against all’ – particularly if it ends in a nuclear war. And that is a possibility that cannot be ruled out. An unrelenting arms race, international tensions, hostility and universal mistrust will only increase the risk.

President Reagan Mikhail Gorbachev Anatoly Dobrynin Dimitry Zarechnak Don Regan Rozanne Ridgway Jack Matlock George Shultz Arthur Hartman Paul Nitze and Eduard Shevardnadze during the Second Plenary Session Fleur D'Eau during the Geneva Summitt in Switzerland, 19 November 1985. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

President Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Anatoly Dobrynin, Dimitry Zarechnak, Don Regan, Rozanne Ridgway, Jack Matlock, George Shultz, Arthur Hartman, Paul Nitze and Eduard Shevardnadze during the Second Plenary Session Fleur D’Eau during the Geneva Summitt in Switzerland, 19 November 1985. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In an article movingly featured alongside Gorbachev’s, 87-year old Shultz argues the INF Treaty needs to be not only preserved but expanded:

Indeed, we should invite other countries to join the treaty and resist the temptation ourselves to develop new classes of these deadly weapons. The first step would be to convene a meeting between American and Russian experts to discuss possible violations of the treaty.

If you love peace, should you prepare for nuclear war?

On the contrary, Gorbachev and Shultz — and the 122 nations who adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) last year — would argue:

If you love peace, ban the bomb.



Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.