According to the Russians, President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) treaty will bring the world closer to the nuclear apocalypse. “Mankind is facing full chaos in the nuclear weapons sphere,” one high-ranking Russian lawmaker said.
The last time the issue of arms control was this dramatic was during the era of the Betamax, Cabbage Patch Kids and Ronald Reagan. But before you sign up for that peace march, you might want to consider the context of Trump’s decision.
The INF treaty was supposed to eliminate all missiles with a range of about 300 to 3,500 miles. When Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed that agreement in 1987, they ended a dangerous standoff in Europe, where both sides had deployed hundreds of nuclear-tipped weapons.
For 21 years, it worked. The U.S. stopped producing intermediate-range missiles, and so did the Russians. But in 2008, the same year Russia invaded Georgia, Moscow began to cheat. That’s when Russia began testing “a ground-launched cruise missile that flies to ranges banned by the treaty,” said Rose Gottemoeller, President Barack Obama’s undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, in a 2015 interview. The U.S. began calling out Russia on those tests in 2013, she said, and the two nations have “been butting heads ever since.”
More recently, the Russians have become even bolder. In 2017, Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that the Russians had deployed that missile, known as the 9M729, “in order to pose a threat to NATO and to facilities within the NATO area of responsibility.”
Faced with these facts, Trump had to make choices. He could continue to do what the Obama administration had done, and try to shame the Russians into compliance. He could have sought to renegotiate the INF Treaty to account for the new Russian deployments. Or he could do what he just did, and withdraw from a treaty to which only America adhered.
Trump made the right choice. Again, it’s worth recalling the lead up to the original INF Treaty. In the early 1980s, Reagan was under enormous pressure from western European allies to hold off on deploying the Pershing II missiles to counter the Soviet SS-20s. He resisted, and the Pershing II missiles were deployed.
That chess move paid off. The deployment was one factor that helped persuade the Soviets to negotiate seriously for the INF Treaty in 1987. The lesson: Some short-term proliferation may be necessary for long-term arms control.
Trump is taking a similar approach today. He has said he is open to a new INF Treaty - one that Russia honors which China joins. (An estimated 95 percent of China’s missiles would be prohibited by the INF Treaty, to which China is not currently a party.) As it now stands, the U.S. is the only great power keeping to the terms of the 31-year-old treaty.
For Russia and other Western arms-control enthusiasts, Trump’s withdrawal is a dangerous gamble. But it’s a gamble worth taking. What’s the point of upholding an arms-control treaty that only constrains America? Better to pull out now in the hopes of getting a real treaty later.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.