Donald Trump likes to shoot from the hip. It has helped him consolidate domestic support, bring North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table, and has led America’s main strategic rival – China – to reassess how it engages with Washington. When it comes to fragile international treaties, however, Trump’s unpredictability is dangerous. His announcement that the US intends to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is a case in point.
At the height of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union agreed to ban all land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges, between 500km (310 miles) and 5,500km (3,418 miles). The INF Treaty, signed by US President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, resulted in the destruction of 2,692 missiles as well as their launchers. It ended a dangerous standoff in Europe between US Pershing and cruise missiles and Soviet SS-20 missiles, and dramatically eased tensions between Washington and Moscow.
Suspicions that Russia is violating the Treaty are at least a decade old. In 2008, US intelligence first suspected Moscow of developing a prohibited ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missile. In 2014, President Obama alerted Western allies to Russia’s testing of this. Rather than withdraw from the Treaty, his administration sought to bring Russia back into compliance.
This was the strategy initially employed by Trump. In 2017, his administration charged that Russia had begun deploying the missile, which by then was known as the Novator 9M729 (or the SSC-8 to NATO). In response, Washington announced an “integrated strategy” to press Moscow to return to compliance.
There were sound reasons for pursuing such a strategy. Most obviously, Russia – rather than the US – was to blame for the Treaty’s failing. (For its part, Russia argues that the US’ missile defence installations in Europe made the Treaty obsolete in the first place.)
At the same time, the US’ European and NATO allies were – and, in the most part, still are – committed to the Treaty. But, for Trump at least, the calculus has now changed. Jim Mattis, the Secretary of Defence, warned earlier this month that unless Russia changed course the US would need to match its capabilities – the US and Europe currently has no comparable deterrent to Russia’s 9M729 missile.
Trump’s decision was likely influenced by John Bolton, his National Security Advisor. Bolton views arms control with disdain. He was a driving force behind George W. Bush’s decision in 2001 to abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and he opposed the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), an agreement on weapons with which the US and Russia could target each other and which is due to expire in 2021. In 2011, Bolton wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for the US to leave the INF Treaty, citing Iran’s missile programs as the reason.
A nuclear arms race of the kind imagined by Bolton’s worldview would represent a return to some of the most dangerous days of the Cold War. Were the US to leave the Treaty and not renew New START, there would be no limits on nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972. This would embolden Vladimir Putin, a man who already talks about nuclear weapons in alarming loose terms.
During his annual national address earlier this year, he said that Russia had developed an “invincible” array of new nuclear weapons that could “reach anywhere in the world”. He highlighted his point with a video graphic appearing to show missiles raining down on the US state of Florida.
The 1987 Treaty is not without its flaws. Its remit is narrow. It covers only land-based nuclear and non-nuclear cruise and ballistic missiles. It only has two signatories – Washington and Moscow. Today, technology has greatly advanced and the nuclear picture has changed. China, in particular, has been developing nuclear-capable missiles unaffected by the INF restrictions – according to senior US military leaders, 95% of Beijing’s approximately 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles would be in violation of the INF Treaty if it had been a signatory.
But the Treaty works. In the words of NATO, since it was signed the agreement has “been crucial to Euro-Atlantic security”. Without the Treaty, there is no reason for Russia to even pretend that it is not developing or deploying intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
And it is unlikely, even in this context, that the US’ European allies would want American missiles deployed on their territories – as they were during the Cold War in the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. Such a move would likely incense European opinion and prompt just the Transatlantic divisions that the Kremlin seeks to sow.
Perhaps, however, this is all part of a grand plan by Trump. Bolton is currently in Moscow to inform his Russian counterparts of the US’ decision to leave the Treaty. If this brings Russia back to compliance or results in an alternative strategic settlement to maintain stability in the Euro-Atlantic area, then Trump’s unpredictability will have paid off.
But as things stand, Trump, who sold himself to the US electorate as a deal maker, is a deal breaker. And the deals he is breaking are those that have provided Western security for over a quarter of a decade.