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Trump’s Punk Rock Nuclear Policy

The only reason to pull out of the INF Treaty is to give a middle finger to the world.

Donald Trump talks with journalists during a rally against the Iran nuclear deal in Washington on Sept. 9, 2015. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Donald Trump talks with journalists during a rally against the Iran nuclear deal in Washington on Sept. 9, 2015. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Why did President Donald Trump announce that the United States would withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty? If you are asking this question, you are already wrong.

You would be wrong because you are looking for a strategic rationale or a policy explanation. And to be sure, some experts will offer those rationales. Russia is violating the INF Treaty. (Probably true.) China is not a party to the agreement and has a bunch of missiles, including nuclear-armed ones, with ranges that would be prohibited if it were. (Definitely true.) Other countries have missiles that would be prohibited were they members, including India, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia (thanks China!), and South Korea. (True, with that list likely to grow.) But this will be a post hoc effort, as analysts seek to explain the campaign stylings of Trump, hoping for a job or maybe just trying to make the best of a bad situation.

While each of these is a reason, not a single one of them is the reason that Trump said on Saturday, “We’re going to terminate the agreement, and we’re going to pull out.” After all, in 2011, John Bolton, now Trump’s national security advisor, called for withdrawing from the INF Treaty because the pact didn’t address “today’s strategic threats,” most notably Iran. Of course, that wasn’t the reason either.

The United States and the Soviet Union signed the INF Treaty in 1987. It bans land-based intermediate- and short-range missiles between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. (Despite the word “nuclear” in the title, it bans all land-based missiles within that range, not just nuclear ones.) The United States was long fine with the treaty since it did not ban those same missiles as long as they were deployed on ships or delivered aircraft. But the Russians gradually grew to feel the treaty was constraining given that other countries around it—including China, India, Iran, North Korea, South Korea, Pakistan, and South Arabia—all had missiles in this range. After years of complaining that the agreement should be made worldwide, the Russians started nibbling around the edges, eventually (according to the U.S. government) violating it with a fancy new cruise missile, the 9M729. That left former President Barack Obama, and then Trump, to decide what to do about cheating. Obama tried, half-heartedly, to persuade Russia to return to compliance. Trump killed the treaty.

But that is a backstory, not a reason. The fact is, there is no reason—at least, not the sort of reason one might study in an international relations class. Back when Bolton penned that op-ed in 2011 with Paula DeSutter, I realized that it wasn’t really an explanation at all. It was more like, well, a tube of lube.

In Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal, he recounts how he was arrested by the Spanish police, who, when confiscating his things, discovered that he had a tube of Vaseline. The context here is important—to the Spanish police in the Francisco Franco-era, that tube of Vaseline was an unmistakable sign of homosexuality. While the object draws homophobic torment and ridicule from the police, Genet begins to the see the object as holding a sort of power: “I was sure that this puny and most humble object would hold its own against them,” he wrote, “by its mere presence it would be able to exasperate all the police in the world; it would draw upon itself contempt, hatred, white and dumb rages.”

Genet, in other words, loved to shock the normies. The sociologist Dick Hebdige used this passage from Genet to illustrate an important idea about the power of objects to shock and discomfort, or as he put it, “the idea of style as a form of Refusal.” Hebdige was interested in subcultures—“the teddy boys and mods and rockers, the skinheads and the punks”—and how “the tensions between dominant and subordinate groups can be found reflected in the surfaces of subculture — in the styles made up of mundane objects which have a double meaning.” In other words, Hebdige understood that the discomfort one might feel in looking at a safety pin through a punk’s nose is precisely the point of the pin. It matters to them that you think it looks awful.

I don’t know why, but Hebdige and his work leaped into mind in 2011 when I read Bolton and DeSutter’s op-ed. It was obvious to me that we were mistaken in understanding the purpose of the object, typeset words printed on thin paper. We should “not mistake the words for an exercise in persuasion,” I realized, “just as we would not confuse the safety-pin through a punk’s nose with a careful analysis of strategic stability.”

Trump’s announcement, made clearly in the context of a campaign rally, is obviously in that same vein. It should be obvious, in an era where “triggering the libs” is an actual reason, that the decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty wasn’t made on the basis of some model showing the balance of nuclear forces.

But what is less obvious is how clear this tendency was long before Trump took office. Bolton and DeSutter’s op-ed, seven years on, looks a lot like a template for the Trump era. Words that mimic the forms of inquiry but that are intended to shock and outrage. Long before Steve Bannon entered the scene, Bolton called himself an “Americanist” and decried the influence of “Globalists,” whom he accused way back in 2000 of “belittling our popular sovereignty and constitutionalism, and restricting both our domestic and our international policy flexibility and power.”

The problem with looking for a reason for Trump’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty is that Bolton, at a fundamental level, would object to needing a reason. After all, needing a reason would seem to imply that there might be some case where the United States would willingly accept some international treaty or agreement that limited the exercise of its sovereignty. Bolton rejects that possibility outright, with almost every treaty an affront to American exceptionalism. “Every time America is forced to bend its knee to international pressure,” Bolton wrote, “it sets a significant, and detrimental, precedent for all of the others.” As an example of this, Bolton cites the death penalty, which he lauds as a “textbook demonstration of popular sovereignty at work” and a result that “enrages the Globalists.”

(Seriously, you should read Bolton’s 2000 essay in the Chicago Journal of International Law on “Should We Take Global Governance Seriously?”)

What is also clearer is how hard the community of experts and pundits has been working to back-fit some reasonable explanation to this profound act of unreason. Almost no one accurately describes Bolton’s worldview in the stark terms that he himself uses. That’s strange because that worldview appealed to Trump, who has a certain affection for the popular sovereignty of an execution. Clothing Trump’s willfulness in secondhand arguments simply helps to obscure the real motivations and normalize the dysfunction.

So let’s not do that. The reason, such that it is, is as clear and striking as the safety pin in a punk’s nose. We can go screw ourselves.

About the Author

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. @ArmsControlWonk

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. @ArmsControlWonk

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