Pretty much everyone agrees (well, except the Russians) that Moscow has violated the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, by developing and testing prohibited tactical nuclear missiles since at least 2014. The treaty, which was signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, banned missiles with a range of 310 to 3,420 miles (the range either country would use to hit targets in Europe), and was the first nuclear arms-control treaty to result in missiles actually being removed from service and destroyed. Meanwhile, China, never bound by the treaty, has built up plenty of intermediate-range missiles of its own, deploying a new, more advanced system earlier this year.
Last weekend, while heading home from a campaign rally in Nevada — not an usual venue for momentous policy declarations by him — President Trump announced that the U.S. is scrapping the INF Treaty.
“We’re not going to let [Russia] violate a nuclear agreement and go out and do weapons,” Trump told reporters on Saturday. “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 going to pull out.”
The Trump administration has not yet begun the actual legal process of pulling the U.S. out of the agreement, but shortly after meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, National Security Advisor John Bolton confirmed the plan, while adding that Putin and Trump should first discuss the matter in person, noting that they’ve expressed interest in holding direct talks in the coming months.
“It is the American position that Russia is in violation,” Bolton told reporters. “Russia’s position is that they aren’t. So one has to ask how to ask the Russians to come back into compliance with something they don’t think they’re violating.”
Perhaps some tough love from the Trump administration — announcing that the U.S. will abandon the treaty without yet taking the steps required to do so — will yield results, where the Obama administration’s varying tactics of pressure and persuasion did not. But don’t count on it. The U.S.’s abandonment of the INF Treaty — at this time, under this administration — will probably only weaken the international system meant to curb the dangers of nuclear weapons. It’s not likely to result in stronger U.S. defenses over the long term, or even make U.S. military posture less expensive.
But what good can a treaty do if at least one side isn’t adhering to its terms? Quite a bit, it turns out. The impetus to negotiate the INF Treaty, back in the late ’80s when the end of the Cold War did not seem imminent, was both strategic and political. It reduced the chances that an intermediate-range missile would be launched toward Europe, and thus of triggering an all-out nuclear exchange by Russia and the U.S., who might under the circumstances suspect that they themselves were under attack. It also reassured the nations of Europe that the superpowers were not structuring their armed forces to fight a nuclear war on that continent that would leave North America and the then-Soviet Union unscathed.
30 years later, much has changed, but the basics of geostrategy have not; influence in Europe, whether political, economic, or military, is the central point of competition — and possibly even direct conflict — between the U.S. and Russia. Washington is treaty-bound to take Europe’s safety into account, and even after two years of Trump denigrating the alliance, Europeans still expect Washington to keep its commitments.
The INF Treaty isn’t just reassuring to Europeans. It was part of a steady accumulation of nuclear arms-control treaties that seemed, ever so slowly, to be bringing every part of the superpowers’ arsenals under control. And that was part of what the rest of the world perceived as a global bargain. In the early ’60s, pessimism abounded that every sizable power would follow the U.S., the U.S.S.R., the U.K., France, and China, and acquire nuclear weapons, making their eventualuse inevitable. But in 1968, almost all the nations of the world signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It acknowledged the nuclear weapons of those five states, which promised to work toward disarming themselves and help others acquire peaceful nuclear technology. In exchange, the other countries promised never to obtain nuclear weapons.
50 years later, this commitment has held up decently well — only four states have acquired nuclear weapons. (That’s not ideal, of course, but imagine if only four countries had violated U.N. rules regarding genocide, slavery, or religious persecution during that time, and how much better the world would be.) After a post-Cold War decline, though, the nuclear states have made little or no progress toward disarmament. India, Pakistan, and China are all building more weapons, while Russia and the U.S. are modernizing theirs. This puts the core bargain in doubt — and getting rid of one concrete limit on U.S. and Russian arsenals sends exactly the wrong signal.
For 70 years, American strategists of both parties believed that constraining the U.S. a little bit in order to constrain other countries a lot was a good trade-off. But the Trump administration believes that there is no higher benefit in national security policy than being able to do whatever the U.S. wants, whenever it wants. (That’s why John Bolton has not yet met a treaty nor a U.N. rule that he likes.) With this mind-set, getting rid of the INF Treaty shows Russia that the U.S. is serious. It allows Washington to station more offensive weapons near Russia’s borders. And it lets Washington develop midrange missiles it can use, tipped with nuclear or conventional missiles, to counter China’s pressure around East Asia.
But other factors suggest that ditching the treaty won’t play out as Trump officials hope. It’s not clear that European or Asian countries will line up to host missiles that would make their territory a more likely target of an early Russian or Chinese attack in the event of a military conflict. Both Beijing and Moscow will be able to wield significant political pressure to prevent that. And in Asia, Washington already can and does put missiles on ships and submarines to achieve a similar result, with the added benefit of unpredictability.
The Trump administration had a range of other means to address Russian cheating: it could have used its special relationship with Moscow to try to change its behavior; pressured Moscow to acknowledge its actions and leave the treaty itself; or approached China about renegotiating the treaty with three parties. Russia experts believe that Putin’s actions over the last decade have been aimed at goading the U.S. into exiting the treaty first, in order to make them look like a nuclear madman on the world stage. Mission accomplished.