Donald Trump announced this weekend that the United States will withdraw from the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (or INF for short) because Russia has "not honored" it. At his rally in Nevada, he offered up a word salad of an explanation, which may please both his supporters and his Russian allies, but not those who care about our foreign policy:
“Russia has violated the agreement. They’ve been violating it for many years. And I don’t know why Pres. Obama didn’t negotiate or pull out. And we’re not going to let them violate a nuclear agreement and go out and do weapons and we’re not allowed to. We’re the ones that have stayed in the agreement and we’ve honored the agreement. But Russia has not, unfortunately, honored the agreement. So we’re going to terminate the agreement. We’re gonna pull out.”
So why pull out of this treaty now, and what are the ramifications for doing so?
The Treaty's History
Introduced by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, the INF called for both the U.S. and Russia to cease manufacturing ballistic cruise missiles with 3,000-mile ranges. Prior to Gorbachev's term as general secretary, Reagan had negotiated with his predecessors to reduce Soviet arms with agreements like START. However, these treaties were viewed as unfair to the Soviets, because they forced them to make greater concessions in dismantling their weapons than the US.
Even with the dismantling required by START, the U.S.'s Pershing II cruise missile system was more technologically advanced than anything the Soviets had come up with. It also didn't help matters that around this time, Reagan made his proposal for the Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as "Project Star Wars" for its deployment of weapons in space, but this proved to be both costly and technologically unfeasible.
Gorbachev, a full generation removed from his deceased predecessors, held different views regarding the Soviet Union's evolution from Communism to greater economic and personal freedom, and his policies of glasnost and perestroika were instrumental in bringing an end to the Cold War. When he met with Reagan at Reykjavik in 1986, both sides agreed to make a deal that abolished their nuclear weapons. The particulars were worked out in INF, which they signed the following December.
The Current Situation
The INF successfully led to the destruction of thousands of nuclear weapons, but under Putin's leadership, Russia violated it. In 2014, President Obama accused Russia of violating the INF when it was discovered that they had tested a new cruise missile, the SSC-8, which had been in development since 2008. Russia denied the existence of the missile for years, ignoring Obama's 2014 compliance report accusing them to the contrary.
The SSC-8 has a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) and could easily target NATO members and major European cities like London and Paris. Its easy transportability and undetectability are also alarming. With a divided Europe and a bellicose United States, NATO and EU member states would not be able to ask the U.S. for help in case Russia ramps up its arsenal, the way they did in the 1980s when they agreed to host Pershing II missiles in their countries in case of counterstrikes.
"If we pull out," says Rear Adm. John Kirby, "we really do need to think about how we are going to, right now because we don't have the same capability as the Russians have with this particular missile. How are we going to try and counter that? How are we going to try and help deter use of it on the continent of Europe?"
There is also the problem of the Chinese, who have invested billions of dollars in building nuclear weapons since 1987. Having never been part of the treaty, they are not bound by its rules, and a neutered or defunct INF would allow them free rein to keep developing weapons, many of them aimed at Japan, one of our closest allies. Some have argued that without the treaty keeping them in place, the U.S. may deploy weapons to the Japanese despite their justifiable history of being anti-nuke. This would further denigrate the postwar order that has governed world affairs since 1945.
Trump and the Republicans appear to be making China a scapegoat to get out of the treaty. Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas released a statement this weekend calling the INF "a remarkable achievement," but with Russia "openly cheating, and the Chinese....stockpiling missiles because they're not bound by it at all....the U.S. [should] consider whether this treaty still serves our national interest." Bills from the current Congress have argued that the best way forward is to kill the treaty and start over.
Kirby posits another solution to the China problem, which is for the US to counter it by relying on their advantage in sea-based cruise missiles. This makes one wonder if the Republicans in power have actually read through the treaty, or possess a thorough understanding of post-Cold War policies.
The Influence of John Bolton
Bolton has long been an opponent of arms treaties, including the INF. In 2011, he co-wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal arguing for the US to withdraw from it because Iran's nuclear program violated its rules. As National Security Advisor, he has taken the lead in setting our nuclear policy over Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and brought in another hardliner on arms control, Tim Morrison, to assist him.
Also interesting, as Kirby points out, is the fact that it wasn't the Pentagon or the State Department who introduced this change in policy, but John Bolton and the NSC. This is just another example of how Bolton has consolidated his power in the administration, and is using his new position as a launchpad for his radical views.
We are fortunate not to live in the same society our parents did, having to practice "duck and cover" routines in schoolrooms in case of nuclear emergencies. But dismantling this key treaty gives Russia and China the lead in developing weapons, since they both outpace us right now in this department. Either way, the dismantling of the INF is a firm reminder that nothing is ever permanent, and that the arc of history, which some declared to have ended after the Cold War, is never truly over.