U.S. President threatens to pull out of Cold War nuclear treaty
President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last month, on October 20. The president has decided to abandon the treaty due to purported violations by Russia, the second signatory to the bilateral agreement. While a withdrawal from the treaty may seem logical to counter the reported nuclear development by Russia, Trump’s decision may put global security at risk.
The INF treaty was signed in 1987, between former presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. It eliminated Soviet and American short and intermediate range land-based nuclear and conventional missiles in Europe, essentially eliminating an entire category of nuclear weapons. Along with other treaties like the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the INF treaty helped bring an end to the arms race between the two countries and signalled the end of the Cold War.
The very reason why Trump wants to scrap the INF is similar to the reason why it was signed in the first place – the threat of nuclear strikes in Europe. Trump has accused Russia of violating the treaty by developing a ground-launched nuclear system that could reach continental Europe without much warning. Similarly, in 1987, the INF treaty was signed after the Soviets deployed short-range ballistic missiles that could target NATO alliance members with little notice. In a sense, Trump’s decision to pull out of the treaty is a logical move to confront, once again, a perceived threat of a Russian nuclear presence in Europe.
Beyond expanded ground-based launch systems, Trump’s move to withdraw from the treaty may have been spurred by Russia’s increasing interest in upgrading their nuclear arsenal. Earlier this year, Putin announced the development of two new nuclear delivery systems, one of which is a hypersonic system that could evade existing missile defense systems. Since Russia seems to be expanding its nuclear capabilities, although its claims have not been verified yet, it is only rational for Trump to turn towards the time-tested nuclear deterrent.
Withdrawing from the INF treaty could have other benefits for the United States, such as signing new treaties between Russia, China, and other emerging nuclear powers that regulate what types of nuclear weapons are acceptable. One of Trump’s reasons for scrapping the treaty is to attempt to coerce China into signing a similar agreement, since it too has been expanding its nuclear capabilities. Unfortunately, the suggestion of a multilateral nuclear treaty may be a fool’s errand; China has condemned Trump’s decision to unilaterally leave the INF treaty, which does not bode well for the chances of a treaty between the United States and China.
Critics of Trump’s announcement to leave the INF treaty say that his actions could lead to another arms race and further destabilization in international politics. Gorbachev himself wrote, “The United States has in effect taken the initiative in destroying the entire system of international treaties and accords that served as the underlying foundation for peace and security following World War II.” in his op-ed piece about Trump’s decision in the New York Times. Scrapping one nuclear treaty could lead down the slippery slope that sees the abandonment of multiple nuclear weapons control treaties, and the beginning of a renewed nuclear arms race.
There have also been mixed reactions from allies of the United States after Trump’s announcement. Britain’s defense minister Gavin Williamson voiced his support for the United States’ withdrawal from the INF treaty.
On the other hand, Germany, France, the EU have expressed concerns about an arms race and the implications for NATO. While Trump seems to be reacting to emerging security threats, he may leave the INF treaty with little support from the majority of his allies, as they try to stabilize power shifts in global politics without resorting to deterrence through mutually assured destruction.
Overall, Trump’s decision to potentially withdraw the United States from the INF treaty should come as no surprise given his track record of treaty withdrawals and coercive behaviour during his time in office.
Regardless of outcome, it is imperative that the president carefully weigh the risk of emerging nuclear powers and Russia’s aggression against the global costs of resuming nuclear arms races before formally tearing up the INF treaty.