President Trump’s assault on international treaties and agreements is taking another victim: the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The Cold War-era treaty eliminated the deployment of all land-based U.S. and Russian nuclear and conventionally armed missiles (and their launchers) with a range between 311 miles and 3,420 miles. When signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, it was celebrated as one of the greatest arms-control achievements ever, because it eliminated a whole class of weapons from a continent ravaged by war in that century. Everyone — Americans, Russians, Europeans — was better off.
Trump and his national security adviser John Bolton — the driver of this U.S. policy change — have decided that Reagan, Gorbachev and European leaders were wrong to want to decrease the number of deployed weapons, including nuclear-armed missiles, in Europe. Instead, Trump wants to restart an arms race with Russia.
Trump officials also have cited China’s land-based missiles as an additional justification for pulling out of the INF Treaty. So now we are embarking on an arms race with both Russia and China.
It is true that Russia was violating the INF Treaty by developing a new cruise missile. Something had to be done to stop Vladimir Putin’s bad behavior. And yes, China also needs to be deterred in Asia. The Trump decision to withdraw for the INF Treaty now, however, does little to achieve these U.S. security goals and much to undermine them.
In Europe, we have now lost the diplomatic battle by appearing yet again as the wrecker of international agreements. European leaders should have done more to pressure Putin to stick to the treaty. But now the attention on bad behavior will swing back to us, not Moscow. That’s a gift for Putin.
And then what? Maybe secret plans have been drafted to enhance European deterrence without the INF Treaty. In public, however, the Trump administration has not outlined how it will use its freedom from the INF Treaty to deploy more intermediate-range missiles on land in Europe. Which missile? Which launcher? And most importantly, where will they be deployed? To be sure, Washington today has more options than Reagan did when he pushed ahead to deploy ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing II missiles in Europe in the 1980s. But even if Poland or Estonia were to allow U.S. missile deployments in their countries, that would spark a major political conflict within NATO. That’s a second gift for Putin.
Also, consider why these weapons inspired such fear at the time. Compared to ICBMs, they decrease the time that leaders in Moscow and Washington have to respond to an attack, real or perceived, to as little as 10 minutes. That is destabilizing.
And finally, the United States and our European allies already have tremendous deterrent capability against Russia in the field, including nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, as well as sea- and air-based conventional missiles. We can additionally deter and counter Russia by increasing our air- and sea-based missiles in the region without deploying missiles of this range on land.
In Asia, the United States and our allies also have many other means to deter China without deploying intermediate-range missiles on the ground. In a stroke of brilliance, the U.S. INF negotiators kept air- and sea-based missiles and launchers out of the 1987 treaty, a victory that played to the United States’ comparative strengths. We still enjoy those comparative advantages in Asia. If we need to deploy more missiles to deter China, we can do so on air- and sea-based platforms without violating the INF Treaty. And our allies can deploy their own missiles on land if they want to do so.
But do they want to do so? Has any U.S. ally in Asia applauded Trump’s decision to withdraw from this treaty? Not yet.
The Trump administration would do well to study the intense intra-alliance tensions over the Reagan administration deployments of the ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing IIs before rushing into such dramas with our Asian allies. And ground-based deployments in Guam would be both remote and much more vulnerable than missiles deployed on ships or submarines.
Instead of accelerating an arms race with China, we should pressure it to join a negotiation about a new arms-control regime in Asia or the world.
Optimists are clinging to the hope that the Trump’s withdrawal gambit is just a negotiating tactic – a move to get the Russians back to the negotiating table. I hope they’re right, but I fear they’re wrong. Putin is unlikely to be threatened into negotiating, especially when the new status quo serves Russian political and security interests.
What’s likely up next for the Trump/Bolton wrecking ball: New START. Bolton has never supported this treaty. If we pull out of it, get ready to spend hundreds of billions on more nuclear weapons of little strategic value (we can blow up the world right now with the 1,550 nuclear weapons allowed under New START) and tens of billions of dollars more to gather intelligence about Russia’s nuclear deployments that can currently be collected through the verification and inspections procedures codified in New START.
The nuclear arms race during the Cold War did not make the United States more secure. Neither will launching a new arms race with both Russia and China.