ON FRIDAY, a pillar of global security will expire. Perhaps no one will notice when the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 slips into oblivion; the threat of nuclear attack in just minutes that seemed so unnerving during the late 20th century has now faded into a distant memory, lost to complacency at the Cold War’s end. But the demise of the INF Treaty should teach a lesson.
Arms control, creating verifiable treaties to limit and reduce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, had its mystique: obtuse concepts, exotic hardware and mind-bending negotiations. But at its core, arms control was about political willpower. In the case of the INF Treaty, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev summoned enough of it to eliminate an entire class of deployed weapons, the ground-based missiles with a range of between 300 and 3,400 miles, and their launchers. The treaty made the world safer not only by removing a nuclear threat to Europe but also by introducing novel measures such as intrusive verification and on-site inspections.
In recent years, the United States detected that Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, was developing, testing and eventually deploying a ground-based cruise missile, the 9M729, prohibited by the treaty. The Obama administration protested the violation to Russia, repeatedly, to no avail; President Trump announced Oct. 20, 2018, that the United States would withdraw. The political will to stick with it was gone — Russia broke it, and Mr. Trump no longer had the desire to stick around.
National security adviser John Bolton said Tuesday in a speech at the National Conservative Student Conference that the 2010 New START accord limiting strategic or long-range nuclear weapons was “flawed from the beginning” and “unlikely” to be renewed when it expires in 2021. “Why extend a flawed system just to say you have a treaty?” he asked. Mr. Bolton and Mr. Trump have held out the prospect of a negotiation that would include China’s nuclear weapons. This sounds reasonable, but China’s nuclear arsenal is only a fraction of what Russia and the United States maintain, and Beijing has ruled out negotiating. So is this administration serious or just creating a diversion? Likewise, Mr. Bolton said New START was flawed because it did not include short-range or tactical nuclear weapons, which have never been covered by treaty. Again, a reasonable goal, but the New START accord was meant to limit the long-range globe-spanning ballistic missiles, not the tactical weapons. Is the administration really serious about tackling this difficult new area of negotiations or just manufacturing a smokescreen?
To rectify these “flaws” in arms control takes political will, not just facile one-liners. Without INF and New START, the world will have fewer restraints on nuclear weapons. Will that somehow be safer? Where is the political determination to carry on the hard work — the negotiating — to avert another nuclear arms race? So far, it is not evident. Time to make a difference, not just a point.