The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the U.S.-China trade war makes clear the folly of arms races

Tit-for-tat conflicts almost always spiral out of control.

A handout photo made available by the U.S. Department of Defense shows a test of a conventionally configured cruise missile at San Nicolas Island, California, on August 18. That type  of missile was banned for more than 30 years by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
A handout photo made available by the U.S. Department of Defense shows a test of a conventionally configured cruise missile at San Nicolas Island, California, on August 18. That type of missile was banned for more than 30 years by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. (Scott Howe/Us Department Of Defense Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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The greatest problem with nuclear war, some strategists noted during the Cold War, was that we had never fought one. As problems go, this was a good one to have. But it meant that our understanding of how an arms race might precipitate nuclear conflict was entirely theoretical.

By now, the lessons of the superpower arms race are clear. As of the late 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union had each deployed some 25,000 nuclear warheads that could be delivered by air, land or sea, with a variety of yields, ranges and trajectories. Despite having arsenals so large and diverse that neither country would survive a war, each still felt itself uniquely vulnerable. Because of that perceived vulnerability, the United States embarked on a massive “rearmament.” And as a result, Moscow believed that Washington was planning a first strike — a fear that peaked in November 1983, when it nearly mistook a NATO war game as the prelude to an actual attack. 

It is hard to imagine wanting to reprise this dangerous period, and yet the United States and Russia seem to be doing just that, embarking on a new arms race complete with (among other things) intermediate-range nuclear weapons of the kind that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev banned because they found them so dangerous. Moves like these increase the risk of confrontation, yet as former energy secretary Ernest Moniz and former senator Sam Nunn recently wrote, “Both sides seem willfully blind to the peril.”

Which is why it is serendipitous that President Trump has given us a concise refresher on the folly of tit-for-tat conflicts — by waging a trade war with China. Although trade wars may seem very different from arms races, both are lose-lose situations in which each escalatory step hurts you as much (or more) than your opponent. Because trade wars play out faster, and because their consequences are more immediate and transparent, they make the destructiveness of such spiraling fights obvious. In other words, if the Cold War wasn’t enough to convince you that arms races aren’t winnable, the U.S.-China trade spat should.

Trade wars and arms races both depend on interdependence to do their damage. Tariffs, for example, can wound only to the extent that your adversary relies on your country as a market for its products. Theoretically, interdependence should reduce the propensity for conflict, because one nation’s exports are another’s imports. But states that hold central positions in the global economic network can also leverage their power to coerce others.

The dependence in an arms race is a little different, but many actions that one country takes to strengthen its security decrease the security of the other. That is not to say every weapon Russia deploys makes us less safe, but some could. And, from both a political and a psychological standpoint, arms buildups by one side seem to demand a response by the other.

The same dynamic has propelled the trade war with China. For example, on April 3, 2018, Trump imposed a 25 percent tariff on $50 billion of Chinese goods, and just hours later, Beijing retaliated by placing tariffs on $50 billion of U.S. goods. The fight has escalated since. In just the first week of August, Trump announced that he would impose 10 percent tariffs on $300 billion of Chinese imports; to which China responded by stopping purchases of U.S. agricultural products; to which the United States responded by labeling China a currency manipulator. Although Trump claimed in 2018 that the trade war would be “easy to win,” the conflict has dragged on at great cost, with American farmers and retailers declaring bankruptcy, the export market for U.S. goods shrinking by tens of billions of dollars, and the chances of a recession shooting up

Despite Trump’s claims, imposing tariffs has not improved the U.S. position at China’s expense. Rather, it has wounded Americans by passing costs to consumers, robbing producers of suppliers and markets, and introducing unpredictability, which stymies economic activity (a business strategy that is smart today could be dumb tomorrow). Similarly, in an arms race, one country’s deployment of more or better nuclear weapons may, ironically, reduce its security by threatening its adversary’s perceived ability to retaliate, and therefore undermining the stability of mutual assured destruction. In a crisis, an insecure adversary is more likely to lash out, lest its arsenal be destroyed on the ground. 

But if trade wars and nuclear arms races are similar in key ways, the foolishness of trade wars is far easier to see. First, while it takes decades to build up and diversify a nuclear arsenal, many of the “weapons” in a trade war can be fielded with the stroke of a pen. In game theory terms, we experience more iterations of play over a shorter period, and therefore can more readily notice patterns and trends.

Second, trade wars are waged in the open. Arms races may involve concealment and bluster: Countries may hide weapons they have or brag about weapons they don’t, resulting in misperceptions that cloud understanding and fuel tension. By contrast, there is no hiding the announcement of tariffs or the imposition of sanctions, and even more-subtle barriers to trade, like obscure regulatory requirements, quickly come to light because executives will publicly bemoan obstacles that prevent them from maximizing profits.

Finally, trade wars lead to immediate feedback from economic and political actors. When Trump labeled China a currency manipulator on Aug. 5, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index plunged 3 percent. It bounced back — only to drop 2.6 percent once again when Trump threatened a new round of tariffs on Aug. 23. As of this writing, stocks have regained their value, but the volatility has been dizzying.

The wages of an arms race are far more difficult to suss out, though no less real. It is hard to measure how threatened an opponent truly feels, particularly because that opponent may have a vested interest in not appearing anxious or, by contrast, in playing up the anxiety for public consumption. When the Reagan administration prepared to deploy Pershing II missiles in Europe, the Soviets decried American warmongering. Although the Soviets had reason to be concerned — the missiles could have reached Moscow in 10 minutes, giving leaders almost no time to react — hawks in the United States accused them of hyping the threat to stoke the growing antinuclear movement. 

That movement, meanwhile, had taken time to develop. Despite the Cuban missile crisis, despite the deployment of tens of thousands of warheads, despite the introduction of destabilizing weapons like multiple-warhead missiles, it is telling that feedback from the political environment — such as the million-person antinuclear protest held in Central Park in 1982 — was slow to emerge and slower to influence policymakers. By contrast, if Trump doesn’t resolve the conflict with China quickly, the economy will suffer, and his chances of reelection will plummet. Trade wars vividly show us how escalation spirals out of control. 

That is why there was no “winning” the Cold War arms race. Nevertheless, Russia and the United States seem determined to embark on another one. 

The tit-for-tat dynamic can already be seen in the dispute over the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a Reagan-era agreement that Russia violated in 2017 by deploying a land-based cruise missile . While the Obama administration had applied diplomatic pressure to try to maintain Russian compliance, Trump announced last fall that the United States would withdraw from the pact and develop new weapons in this category. The Russians quickly responded that they would no longer abide by the agreement, with a Kremlin spokesman adding that Russia would act “to restore balance in this sphere.”

Both sides are also exploring other new weapons — and modernizing old ones. In addition to the $1.2 trillion that President Barack Obama committed to upgrading existing U.S. nuclear forces over 30 years, the Trump administration is also pursuing a new warhead for America’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles and a return to Cold War-era nuclear-tipped, sea-launched cruise missiles. Russia, meanwhile, is working on several new systems, including an undersea nuclear drone and a nuclear-powered cruise missile — one of which apparently exploded during a test last month. 

At the same time, the few remaining diplomatic constraints on U.S. and Russian weapons may soon disappear. John Bolton, the national security adviser, has signaled that the administration is unlikely to renew the New START agreement. That treaty, which is set to expire in February 2021 but which could be extended by five years, caps strategic deployments at 1,550 warheads and gives the United States a detailed picture of Russian nuclear activities through its reporting and inspection regime. Trump calls it a “bad deal” that is “one-sided.”

The point is not that every weapons system is bad, that every treaty is good or that the United States should stand idly by while Russia builds up its nuclear arsenal. The point is that, just as trade policy should make us richer, nuclear policy should make us safer — and arms races don’t. They are run on a treadmill. And the only way to win a race on a treadmill is to get off the contraption before you collapse from exhaustion. If the trade war with China can help us see that arms races backfire — without the risk of provoking Armageddon — perhaps it will have been worth the cost.

Twitter: @PeterScoblic

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