The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Trump’s rejection of a key pillar of Reagan conservatism

The INF treaty reflected a conservative worldview built around alliances.

President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev exchange pens during the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signing ceremony in the White House East Room, on Dec. 8, 1987. (Bob Daugherty/AP)

The Trump administration has indicated that the United States intends to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing Russia’s failure to comply with it.

Signed in December 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, the INF Treaty eliminated all ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (300 to 3,400 miles). The agreement has often been hailed as historic: it was the first arms control deal to abolish an entire class of nuclear weapons. To some, the INF Treaty even represented the end of the decades-long Cold War struggle.

In recent years, the treaty has come under fire. The Obama administration charged in 2014 that Russia had violated the agreement. And Moscow alleges that the United States has also violated the treaty —— a claim Washington denies.

But far from being enthusiastically embraced, the INF Treaty has been under attack from the start. Three decades ago, the treaty faced significant opposition within conservative circles, as critics argued the agreement would damage the U.S. position and undermine the security of the Western Alliance. At the first candidates’ debate of the 1988 election cycle, held the week before Reagan and Gorbachev met in Washington to sign the treaty, Vice President George H.W. Bush was the only Republican presidential hopeful to actually endorse it.

Critics on the right questioned the value of arms control and debated whether the agreement created new security problems for the NATO alliance. Some wondered whether Reagan had gone soft on the Soviets. At the end of the day, the Reagan administration overcame opposition to the treaty. But it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the Trump administration now withdrawing from the INF Treaty, as it embraces a similar brand of unilateralist thinking as many of the treaty’s early conservative critics.

Some of the treaty’s critics were inherently skeptical of any arms control agreement concluded with the Soviet Union. Their logic was simple: If Moscow was willing to sign the agreement, it was clearly a bad deal.

Sen. Jesse Helms, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, launched a full-on assault of the treaty. Helms was dramatic and often sensationalist, armed with distorted figures and bold assertions. He charged that the Soviet Union was already stockpiling SS-20 missiles covered by the agreement in secret, thereby violating its terms, and boldly insisted that the agreement’s provisions for the Soviet Union to destroy over twice as many missiles as the United States would actually produce a Soviet advantage.

Helms’s campaign grabbed headlines, but it found few actual supporters. For most in conservative circles, the real issue was whether the INF Treaty enhanced U.S. security and that of NATO as a whole. Some veteran conservative foreign policy hands argued that the INF Treaty would only exacerbate the very problems it was supposed to fix. Rather than guaranteeing the security of Western Europe and enhancing American alliances and leadership of the world, the treaty would actually put it at risk.

The opposition to the concept behind the INF Treaty predated the agreement itself by years. In 1979, NATO had launched a “dual track” policy, which called for the parallel pursuit of theater nuclear force modernization and arms control talks on those same medium-range systems. In November 1981, Reagan unveiled the American position on nuclear arms negotiations: calling for “zero” on both sides —— meaning the removal of Soviet missiles already deployed in exchange for the United States canceling the deployments called for in the Dual-Track Decision. This prompted concern from some allied officials that the proposal, if accepted, would erode the foundations of NATO’s nuclear strategy.

In autumn 1983, the United States had begun deploying new intermediate-range nuclear forces — Pershing IIs and ground-launched cruise missiles —— to Western Europe, following through on the Dual-Track Decision. These missile deployments had been intended to reassure American allies that the United States remained committed to the defense of Europe and to counter the Soviet Union’s ongoing deployment of SS-20 missiles.

This decision had been highly controversial: Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in the early 1980s, expressing their fears of nuclear annihilation and speaking out against the so-called Euromissiles. Despite the widespread opposition, NATO went ahead with the deployments.

Four years later, the INF Treaty did away with these systems, thrilling critics of the deployment, but resurrecting the concerns that had first surfaced over Reagan’s 1981 “zero” proposal. By abolishing the Soviet SS-20 missiles and the U.S. Pershing IIs and ground-launched cruise missiles, some critics charged that the INF Treaty would end up leaving Western Europe exposed to Soviet conventional forces and weaken NATO’s defenses.

Gen. Bernard Rogers, recently retired from his post as NATO’s top commander, testified before the Senate that the INF Treaty threatened to undermine the Western Alliance. It left NATO exposed to pressures for further denuclearization, which could open the allies up to intimidation and coercion by the members of the Warsaw Pact. Alexander Haig, Reagan’s first secretary of state, insisted the treaty should only be passed if it were accompanied by a corresponding Soviet agreement to reduce conventional forces. Similar fears echoed throughout the alliance.

Even those who supported the INF Treaty expressed significant reservations. Henry Kissinger backed the agreement, despite clear reservations about its effect on the balance of forces between East and West. Both he and Richard Nixon went so far as to argue that the treaty would make conventional war in Europe more likely, an assertion that echoed the arguments advanced by Rogers.

Yet Kissinger still backed the deal: the negotiations had already gone too far. Rejecting the treaty at this point would deal a considerable blow to NATO, precipitating a political crisis within the Western Alliance and undermining U.S. leadership. It was too high of a price to pay, according to Kissinger.

Much of the debate was not about the value of arms control, but about the value of alliances in U.S. foreign policy. Take, for example, Kissinger’s thinking. There were serious deficiencies within the U.S.-Soviet agreement, but the prospect of rejecting the treaty was unpalatable because of the crisis it would unleash within the Atlantic alliance.

Kissinger’s view was a staple among those who valued American alliances. While some who subscribed to this vision of the world came down on the other side of the treaty, they fundamentally embraced Kissinger’s priorities.

At the end of the day, the Senate ratified the INF Treaty by an overwhelming 93 to 5 margin. And many within Reagan’s own foreign policy team, known for their skepticism of arms control deals, came out in favor of the treaty. Helms’s charges that Reagan was soft on communism and had become the Neville Chamberlain of his day gained little traction. After all, most remembered Reagan as the staunch Cold Warrior who had denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” in 1983.

Fast forward three decades. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, is widely seen as the primary engineer of the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty, the latest of his moves against arms control agreements since entering the administration six months ago. Bolton’s opposition is hardly new —— or all that surprising given the debates surrounding the treaty. Bolton is a longtime skeptic of American alliances and the value of those commitments. It is yet another sign of this administration’s peculiar —— and often paradoxical —— conservatism: for all the administration invokes Reagan, its foreign policy actually embraces the arguments put forth by Reagan’s critics.