Would INF Withdrawal Recreate a Nuclear Hair-Trigger World?

Junk enough arms control treaties, and the Cold War balance of terror will reign once again—this time with China in the mix.

John Bolton, the national security advisor to the U.S. president, gives a press conference in Moscow on Oct. 23. (Yuri Kadovnov/ AFP)
John Bolton, the national security advisor to the U.S. president, gives a press conference in Moscow on Oct. 23. (Yuri Kadovnov/ AFP)

Generations have come and gone since the worst days of the “balance of terror” that defined the Cold War. Most Americans alive today don’t remember diving under their school desks in practice drills, quaint government plans for fallout shelters and evacuation routes, or the frenzied debates over which country might decide to rain down thermonuclear fire first and how many “megadeaths” would occur.

That’s because, starting around four decades ago, Washington and Moscow began walking the world back from the nuclear precipice by negotiating a slew of arms control agreements. With the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty—followed, possibly, by the START agreement—this safer world could well come undone.

The INF Treaty, signed in 1987, was a keystone of those early efforts to ease tensions. It sought to end the hair-trigger calculus embedded in the missiles that ringed the perimeter of the Soviet bloc, giving both sides scant minutes of warning before Armageddon. The INF Treaty was, as then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan said, the first nuclear treaty to eliminate, not just limit, nuclear arms. The United States and the Soviet Union pledged to destroy and permanently forswear all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (300 to 3,400 miles).

Now, Washington plans to withdraw from the INF Treaty, according to U.S. President Donald Trump, who says that Russia has violated the agreement for years. Coupled with the prospect of no extension to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, Washington may thus be opening the door to a return of a terrifying past. The Trump administration is not just threatening to roll back a slew of protections and safety precautions; it is also quite consciously restarting the arms race, with a full nuclear modernization plan that could cost up to $1.6 trillion over 30 years, according to an October 2017 report from the Congressional Budget Office and other accounts. The Russians and Chinese will undoubtedly respond, but with the cessation of treaty-authorized inspections, governments will be far more in the dark about what the other side is building.

“It’s extremely worrying to leave us without eyes and ears inside Russian strategic forces for the first time in 40 years,” said Alexandra Bell, a former senior Obama administration official now at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “There’s no way to get information except with reciprocal inspections. It’s an incredible own goal to take away something our own military wants.”

Trump told reporters on Monday that he would increase the U.S. nuclear stockpile—including against China—“until people come to their senses.” He didn’t define what that meant but suggested that the resurrection of a nuclear threat from Washington will bring other countries into submission.

“It’s a threat to whoever you want,” Trump said. “And it includes China, and it includes Russia, and it includes anybody else that wants to play that game. You can’t do that. You can’t play that game on me.”

Together, these moves could eventually leave the world facing a new kind of balance of terror, and on several different fronts. It’s no longer just about Washington and Moscow. China, which was for much of the Cold War a nuclear minnow and remains a much smaller nuclear power than the United States or Russia, has now stockpiled thousands of missiles, including tactical, cruise, medium-range, long-range, and intercontinental ballistic missiles launchable from air, land, and sea. That arsenal includes the mobile-launched Dongfeng-41, believed to be the world’s longest-ranged missile at a projected 7,500 miles.

Until now, Beijing has been restrained about tipping those missiles with nuclear warheads: It keeps an estimated 250 to 300 warheads, about as many as France. But that could begin to change if tensions rise and no treaty is in place to contain them.

China had already been modernizing the country’s nuclear forces as part of the broader competition with the United States, said Caitlin Talmadge, a Georgetown University specialist in U.S. defense policy. “It isn’t obvious that this one area of competition is going to be dramatically more important than areas like missile defense, cyberspace, conventional missiles, or surface and undersea warfare where the U.S. and China are already trying to outdo each other and have been for a while,” Talmadge said.

Yet without treaty restrictions, a Pacific balance of terror could prove as unpredictable as what prevailed between Moscow and Washington during the darkest days of the Cold War.

The Trump administration claims that Russian President Vladimir Putin is responsible for the INF Treaty’s failure. In February 2007, Putin declared that the treaty no longer served Russia’s interests. Ever since, Russia has been violating it, claiming that its missile deployments are justified by U.S. missile defense. Even so, the violations have been relatively small-scale, mainly involving the construction of about 40 to 50 prohibited SSC-8 cruise missiles, said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear arms specialist at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. Bunn noted that the United States is also technically violating the treaty by taking a sea-based missile launcher, the Aegis, and putting it ashore. “If the shoe was on the other foot, we’d be screaming about that,” he said.

Even some Russian officials are worried about what the junking of the INF Treaty could mean in the long run. In the decades after the INF was signed, a slew of protective measures—especially the 1991 Nunn-Lugar program to fund weapons dismantling in former Soviet states—not only brought the super powers back from the precipice but also secured nuclear materials from terrorists.

Bunn said that when he was in Moscow earlier this year, Sergey Rogov of the Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies—who has ties to Russian legislators—started off a conference by suggesting that “leaving the INF could bring the whole structure of arms control crashing down.”

“The only treaty we’ve got left is the new START treaty,” Bunn added. But that expires at the beginning of the next presidential term [2021], unless a five-year extension is invoked. “So either two and a half years from now, or seven and a half years from now, that treaty comes to an end,” he said. “And if that happens, you have a situation where you can probably forget about getting another treaty ratified in the U.S. Congress.”

That seems to be exactly the scenario that Trump’s hawkish national security advisor, John Bolton, wants. Bolton has made a career out of shredding one arms control pact after another, and he has indicated in various remarks that he is now setting his sights on the START agreement.

Trump often declares his abhorrence of nuclear weapons, but here he appears to be following the agenda of Bolton, who comes out of an old tradition of Cold War hard-liners who opposed arms control, believing that such self-limiting accords only hindered America’s ability to create superior technology and dominate the battlefield. Hawks believe it was their aggressive arms buildup—not detente and nuclear reduction treaties—that effectively won the Cold War when the Soviet Union collapsed economically in the face of U.S. defense spending and technological advances.

Based on the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the Trump administration believes the country is back in a similar place, and it sees a need to free the United States of any treaty restrictions on an arms buildup. “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” from Russia and China, it says. “The drive to develop new technologies is relentless.”

Bolton advocated withdrawing from the INF treaty “as far back as 2011, before Russian violations came to light,” noted Lynn Rusten, who served as senior director for arms control on former President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. She, like many members of the military, also said Bolton’s idea of deploying ground-based missiles in an island chain around China is fanciful and unnecessary, as U.S. air- and sea-based missiles are deemed sufficient.

Previously, Washington usually was the one seeking to tamp down tensions by proposing new arms control treaties. Now, it is Washington that is unilaterally withdrawing, a virtual invitation to Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping to build up their forces as they please.

“I think this is opening the door to an all-out arms race,” Rusten said.

There’s still a chance to salvage the INF Treaty, which requires six months’ notice to leave. Rusten and other INF Treaty supporters hope the treaty can be salvaged if Russia agrees to comply and if Congress puts pressure on Trump. “This isn’t a done deal yet, and hopefully there’ll be some reconsideration,” she said. “The Russian violation is a problem, but it is not helped in any way by our withdrawal. This only sets the U.S. up to take the blame.”

But most observers expect U.S. withdrawal and the start of a new era in which nuclear weapons are again part of the strategic calculus between great powers. Said Bunn: “Not that long ago, I had a friendly debate with a senior Republican colleague about whether U.S.-Russia relations were the most dangerous since the early 1980s, which was my viewpoint, or since the Cuban missile crisis, which was his viewpoint. If we have no treaties at all regulating the strategic balance, that’s a big deal.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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