President Trump is about to launch a new nuclear arms race. On Friday the administration announced that the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between Russia and the United States. Trump boasted last fall that “we have more money than anybody else by far. We’ll build it up until [China and Russia] come to their senses.” Trump’s announcement triggers the six-month period the treaty requires before full withdrawal. If no agreement is reached with Russia, the wraps will be off. The New START treaty, which limits strategic weapons but expires in 2021, will be a likely casualty. Russia, China and the United States will invent more weapons and deploy them in more places, with faster speeds on hair-trigger alerts. Human error, accident or mishap can already touch off a global nuclear catastrophe. If Trump has his way, the chances of that will rise greatly.
Allies and outside experts denounced the United States’ move. The Union of Concerned Scientists warned that the move would “ultimately undermine the security of the United States and its allies.” The European Union urged that the United States “consider the consequences of its possible withdrawal from the INF on its own security, on the security of its allies and of the whole world.” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that “ending the treaty would have many negative consequences.”
Signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the INF Treaty was the beginning of the end of the arms race and the Cold War. For the first time, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed not simply to limit nuclear arms but to destroy them — some 2,700 warheads and an entire category of missiles of intermediate range. Gorbachev used the easing of tensions in Europe to loosen the Soviet grip on its Warsaw Pact allies. The INF Treaty led directly to the reductions of strategic weaponry in the START treaty. The disarmament momentum spread to countries such as South Africa and Libya, leading them to abandon their nuclear weapons research. Torpedoing the INF Treaty is likely to trigger the reverse process, leaving the world more at risk and more dangerous than ever.
Things haven’t been perfect since the treaty’s signing. The Russians, many believe, are in violation of the treaty (and China isn’t a party to it). Russia asserts that the United States is violating the treaty with its deployment of anti-ballistic missiles near the Russian border. Tensions began when President Bill Clinton broke President George H.W. Bush’s pledge and expanded NATO toward the Russian border. Then in 2002, President George W. Bush unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Most recently, Russia moved to develop a new missile that some argue violates the INF Treaty.
But enforcement, not abandonment, is the answer to violations of law. Trump claims a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rather than sweep away denuclearization efforts or maintain the status quo, the United States should revive a bolder disarmament initiative, engaging both Russia and China in discussions on deep reductions in nuclear arsenals, and using that agreement to build momentum against proliferation. This is the time to push for inspections, information exchange, arbitration and agreement — not for blowing up the treaty. Similarly, the answer to Chinese exclusion is inviting Beijing to join the nonproliferation ranks, not destroying what progress exists.
To begin that, Trump would have to rid himself of national security adviser John Bolton, who has consistently opposed denuclearization. The administration would also have to build a diplomatic capacity that thus far is nowhere in evidence.
In the meantime, rather than waiting for Trump to act, Congress can step up. Led by Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley (D), 10 senators, including five potential Democratic presidential contenders (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala D. Harris, Sherrod Brown and Kirsten Gillibrand), have introduced legislation to bar any funding for new weaponry that would violate the INF Treaty. The Senate should also mandate that invoking the withdrawal procedures of a Senate-approved treaty require prior Senate approval. Passage of a prohibition on the first use of nuclear weapons and taking those weapons off hair-trigger alert would help ease rising tensions. Legislative and citizen exchanges with the Russians and the Chinese could begin to explore not only a new expanded START treaty but also a broader effort to dismantle nuclear arsenals and cooperate on nonproliferation.
At this point, we are headed toward ever greater peril: hundreds of billions of dollars more wasted on weapons that cannot be used, increasing peril of nuclear accident or war, accelerating proliferation as other countries emulate the great powers and seek to build their own arsenals.
The INF Treaty has been a cornerstone of U.S.-Russian arms control for three decades. While it is easy to bust up the aging architecture of arms control, it is far harder to put it back together once it is gone. We are already in a dangerous period of increasing tensions between the United States and Russia. Adding a new nuclear arms race is the last thing either country or the world needs.