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(Washington Post illustration/Washington Post illustration)

On Friday, the Trump administration confirmed its intention to scrap a historic nuclear arms-control pact with Moscow. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States would suspend its participation in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, likely to be followed by a formal withdrawal six months down the road.

The news is in keeping with President Trump’s penchant for wrecking diplomatic pacts. He axed a landmark Asia-Pacific trade deal during his first week in office and controversially pulled the United States out of Obama-era international agreements on climate change and Iran’s nuclear program.

“We will move forward with developing our own military response options and will work with NATO and our other allies and partners to deny Russia any military advantage from its unlawful conduct,” Trump said in a written statement Friday.

The INF Treaty prohibited Russia and the United States from possessing, developing or deploying ground-launched cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (311 and 3,418 miles). For several years, U.S. officials have contended that some of Russia’s new ground-launched and cruise missiles violate the terms of the pact. Moscow denies those claims, accusing Washington of deliberately trying to exit the treaty to trigger a new arms race.

If the INF Treaty collapses, it will mark the end of a cornerstone agreement in which, for the first time, the two Cold War rivals agreed to destroy portions of their nuclear arsenals. “The treaty has been a central element of Europe’s security strategy for more than three decades and its signing was considered a crucial moment in Cold War arms control, eliminating more than 2,600 missiles and ending a years-long standoff with nuclear missiles in Europe,” wrote my colleagues.

More than three decades after its signing, however, the Trump administration says it’s responding to new realities. Beyond the threat posed by Russia, it seeks more options in the face of China’s own military expansion. “China [and] Iran, for that matter, are not bound by the treaty,” a senior administration official said on a phone call with reporters last week. “We cannot be the only country bound by a treaty.”

The United States' NATO allies back the administration’s tough approach on the treaty, but critics contend that keeping it alive would rein in Moscow’s bad behavior. “Critics of U.S. withdrawal from the treaty say that, despite Russia’s violation, the best way to keep Russian arms in check would be to negotiate while keeping the treaty intact,” explained Anton Troianovski, The Post’s Moscow bureau chief.

“Putin had previously been eager to negotiate with the United States on the matter,” he added, “in part because, analysts say, discussion of nuclear arsenals is one of the only issues on which Moscow can engage on near-equal diplomatic footing with Washington.”

On Saturday, the Kremlin mustered a tough response, ordering its military to start developing land-based missiles once prohibited. “Our answer will be symmetrical,” Putin said in a televised meeting with his defense and foreign ministers. “Our American partners declared that they will suspend their participation in the treaty, so we will suspend ours as well. They said they would start research and development, and we will do the same.”

Now, questions also hang over the future of the New START, a separate pact brokered in 2011 that limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads deployed by Russia and the United States. That treaty is set to expire in 2021, and the current tensions suggest its collapse may be around the corner.

“If the White House and the Kremlin do not agree to extend New START,” reported my colleagues, “the decision would turn the clock back to an era when Washington and Moscow possessed nuclear arms with practically no agreed restrictions and would risk the return of a full Cold War-style arms race.”

Congress, especially the Democratic-dominated House, may challenge Trump’s nuclear ambitions, and could try to block funding of missile programs that violate the INF. European officials, meanwhile, raised fears of a perilous escalation.

“What we definitely don’t want to see is our continent going back to being a battlefield or a place where other superpowers confront themselves,” Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said to reporters.

“We have to think about what the world looks like with absolutely no constraints on these types of missiles at all,” Alexandra Bell, an arms-control expert with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told Foreign Policy. “Is the security of the world actually improved by Russia having absolutely zero constraints over the ability to produce intermediate-range nuclear missiles? The answer to that is no.”

Experts also fret over the implications of an American missile buildup against China. In a brief for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former U.S. diplomat Pranay Vaddi warned that U.S. attempts to deploy ground-based missile systems among Asian allies may be rebuffed and may further destabilize the region.

“Ultimately, the regional security environment will likely deteriorate quickly following the deployment” of such missiles, he wrote. “It would be prudent for U.S. officials to find other ways to maintain the United States’ competitive edge in managing the military threat posed by China.”

Prudence, of course, has not been a watchword of this administration. Critics point to the wrecking-ball agenda of White House national security adviser John Bolton, a hawk with a long track record of undermining arms control deals, whose influence they spy in the current developments.

“For Bolton and others like him, these agreements are part of the effort by the global Lilliputians to tie down the American Gulliver,” wrote Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. “In his mind, we must have maximum flexibility and multiple military options to preserve our security and interests around the world. We must protect our nation with military might, not pieces of paper.”

But at a time of renewed great power competition, that quest for enduring American primacy may make the world less safe.

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