President Donald Trump announced during a campaign stop in Nevada that he would terminate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was used to eliminate an entire category of nuclear weapons. This was probably the first time most folks had ever heard of this Reagan-era arms control agreement that helped end the Cold War and kept Europe stable for a generation. Which may explain why the American public is not yet reacting to this disaster with the level of panic it deserves.
It’s tempting to think of treaties as little scraps of paper collecting dust on a historian’s bookshelf. Interesting, if you’re into that sort of thing, but largely irrelevant. The INF Treaty is something else entirely: This scrap of paper is a powerful leash, one of the few things restraining Russia and the United States (which together hold around 92% of the world’s nuclear weapons) from arms-racing us all into oblivion.
Hammered out by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, this agreement you’ve never heard of sent thousands of midrange nuclear missiles to the scrap heap. The INF Treaty was central not only to stopping but reversing the most dangerous military buildup in history: It cleared the way for a series of deals that brought global nuclear stockpiles down from their estimated peak of 70,300 weapons in 1986 to the 14,485 that remain today.
For 30 years, Reagan’s historic achievement largely held fast – until Trump.
Yes, over the past few years, American and Russian officials have accused each other of developing weapon systems that violate the INF Treaty. It’s a legitimate and troubling dispute. But that’s what diplomacy is: the ongoing management of legitimate and troubling disputes. Where the Obama administration tried (and failed) to resolve these concerns, it’s not clear Trump or his senior team have actively tried to engage their Russian counterparts about it.
Trump’s decision to flip the table and storm away is predictable but in no way sensible. It may even morph this dispute into a full-blown nuclear crisis.
Why? Because shredding the INF Treaty won’t make the Russians behave – it just absolves them of responsibility and shifts blame for the breakdown to the Americans. It also kicks open the door for the United States and Russia to deploy a greater number of the weapons systems at issue, which puts even more cities at risk.
This issue may well surface at Trump’s potential meeting next month with Vladimir Putin in Paris, but it would take a dizzying U-turn by the United States – and a willingness on Russia’s part to appear outfoxed – to keep the treaty intact. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
This is hardly the first international accord the Trump administration has upended. From the Universal Postal Union to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement, this President has acted as a wrecking ball to the liberal international order. In its place churns an illiberal chaos.
Nowhere is that chaos more dangerous than in the realm of civilization-ending nuclear weaponry. Instability gives rise to unpredictability, which can rapidly metastasize into miscalculation and catastrophe. It’s difficult to overstate the stakes.
From the early days of the campaign, Trump has worn his nuclear ambitions on his sleeve. He openly questioned why these weapons should not be used, called for a “massive expansion” of the nuclear arsenal, pressed the Pentagon on a tenfold increase in warheads, rejected a golden opportunity to maintain limits and inspections of US-Russian strategic arsenals, and developed an extreme plan that calls for building new, more “usable” nuclear weapons.
The United States, he has often said, must have the biggest, baddest arsenal on the planet. Nuclear stability and reductions are to be replaced with nuclear dominance, no matter the cost or the consequence.
If this landmark INF Treaty is allowed to collapse, the only other restraint on Trump’s and Putin’s nuclear ambitions will be New START, a 2010 agreement that further limits Russian and American nuclear arsenals equally and puts inspectors on the ground in both countries to verify these limits. That agreement is set to expire in 2021 and, like most things negotiated or completed by Obama, is already under assault by hardliners in the administration – and Trump himself.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Look, I get it. There’s a lot going on in the country right now, a lot of fires that need to be put out. It’s hard to know where to focus when all of it’s so urgent. But listen to me when I tell you that the most important guardrails on the planet are falling off.
The international system put in place to protect us from the buildup of nuclear weapons – weapons designed to kill millions of people in seconds, and poison whole nations for generations – is crumbling.
If we don’t get this right, we’re not going to get a chance to fix anything else.