The 1987 pact, negotiated by President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, resulted in the eventual elimination of an entire class of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles. Overall, the Soviets destroyed 1,846 missiles and the United States destroyed 846. And while the INF Treaty didn’t end nuclear-weapons proliferation, the accord helped cool Cold War tensions, including differences with Western allies resistant to deploying the missiles on European soil.
Not surprisingly, today’s allied leaders are alarmed over Trump’s announcement, since such missiles present a more direct threat to their nations (and because many will recall how the spectre of basing U.S. missiles convulsed the continent back in the 1980s).
But they understand the context, and maybe even the motivation behind Trump’s frustration with the INF Treaty. Indeed, his complaint that the Russians are cheating is legitimate. Former President Barack Obama also accused Moscow of noncompliance.
Additionally, China, which is not party to the pact, has aggressively developed this class of nuclear weapons, which make up the majority of its arsenal.
But abrogating the treaty isn’t likely to solve those problems.
Rather, Russia would be able to blame the U.S. and continue proliferating apace. And what little pressure there is on China regarding nuclear arms would likely dissipate, too.
Congress might, and indeed should, balk at spending on a new arms race. And even if the U.S. chose to keep pace with Russian and Chinese proliferation, NATO nations and Asian allies like Japan and South Korea would be highly reluctant to host a new generation of land-based U.S. missiles.
Exiting the INF Treaty “basically allows the Russians to blame the United States for this treaty falling apart, and it allows the Russians to continue what they are doing because they’re no longer in violation of anything,” Mark S. Bell, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, told an editorial writer. Bell, an expert on nuclear-proliferation issues, added that there were “diplomatic options that have not yet been exhausted for trying to pressure Russia back into compliance.”
That’s the position shared by most of America’s Western allies, many of whom seem ready to double down on diplomacy.
French President Emmanuel Macron phoned Trump to warn against “any hasty unilateral decisions.”
And Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, told a German newspaper group that “we will put the issue high on the NATO agenda” and that “we are ready to work with Russia to force its compliance with the INF. We are not ready to set off a new arms race.”
Trump hinted at just that when he said that he was ready to out-deploy and outspend Russia and China on nuclear weapons. “Until people come to their senses, we will build it up,” the president said on Oct. 22.
The people needing to come to their senses include the president himself. The U.S. arsenal is already more than ample — and plenty expensive. And overall the world needs fewer, not more, nuclear weapons, and more, not fewer, arms-control treaties.
Russia must be held to account for its violations. And China must be pressured to curb its proliferation. Scrapping the INF Treaty is counterintuitive and counterproductive to both of those strategic objectives.