Shadow Government

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Trump Is Pushing the United States Toward Nuclear Anarchy

The White House wants to leave the INF Treaty. New START could be next. The death of these agreements would fuel a new arms race.

Russian Navy Commander in Chief Adm. Vladimir Korolyov, President Vladimir Putin, and Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu examine a globe in St. Petersburg on July 30, 2017. (Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian Navy Commander in Chief Adm. Vladimir Korolyov, President Vladimir Putin, and Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu examine a globe in St. Petersburg on July 30, 2017. (Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s tough talk about withdrawing the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has generated plenty of controversy, but not much clarity about what happens next. What’s certain is that the end of the treaty would make the United States and its allies (for whom Trump apparently cares little) less safe and would undermine the global basis for nuclear restraint and nonproliferation.

And it may get worse. America’s potential withdrawal from the INF Treaty—which bans the United States and Russia from having nuclear or conventional ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km (300 to 3,400 miles)—suggests that the 2010 New START arms reduction treaty with Russia might be next.

The untimely death of these two agreements would add fuel to a new arms race and further undermine stability and predictability between Washington and Moscow. The last time the United States and Russia had to navigate a world without bilateral nuclear constraints was before 1972; it was a world we were lucky to survive and one to which no sane person should want to return.

Nuclear weapons and deterrence advocates like to claim that the invention of nuclear weapons is what has kept the peace among major powers since the end of World War II. However, it was the development of predictable, binding, legal agreements and enforced global norms of behavior across security, trade, and global issues—not nuclear arms—that helped the United States to become the most prosperous and secure country in history. The rules not only made the United States safer and richer but also helped usher in an unprecedented era of global prosperity. The preservation of that order is a vital national interest and is under attack by the Trump administration.

That Trump would seek to undermine the rules that have benefited U.S. prosperity and influence is bad enough. That he would try to disrupt the system that prevents nuclear anarchy is inexcusable.

Arms control agreements, imperfect as they are, have proven remarkably successful at countering destabilizing nuclear programs at a fraction of the cost of countervailing military programs. Such agreements should only be ended after careful consideration and if the outcome will improve U.S. security, and where there is at least a plan to restore whatever stability and security is lost by their termination. Trump’s move to kill the INF Treaty includes neither, and it is increasingly obvious that ending the agreement has little to do with Russia and much to do with both China and the anti-treaty zealots now in control at the White House. While there may be some merit to the idea of leaving the INF Treaty behind, the onus of justifying such a move and explaining how the United States would be better off in sum is now on those who are clamoring for its demise.

How did the situation get so bad?

The Obama administration in 2014 discovered and announced that Russia was violating the INF Treaty by developing and deploying a small number of banned missiles. Since then, the U.S. government has determined that there is no need for the military to develop its own counterpart missiles. Instead, the best reaction, and one that I helped to encourage during my time in the White House, was to develop a unified allied response that could bring Russia back into compliance with an agreement that had long served the interests of the United States, its East Asian allies, and NATO.

Pressing the arms control case was not easy. In our work, we were hampered by the highly sensitive nature of the intelligence proving Russia’s violation, and many of my colleagues were understandably consumed by addressing Russia’s illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Even with concerted effort, it proved difficult for us in the Obama administration to gain broad European support to pressure Russia over its INF Treaty violations. Yet throughout our efforts it was clear to me and to President Barack Obama’s national security team that if it was necessary for the United States to develop its own missile systems to counter Russia’s actions, it had the legal right to do so even while remaining compliant under the INF Treaty. Congress eventually pushed for such a program, for which research and development is underway, even as the United States remains in compliance with the agreement, which draws the line at flight-testing such systems.

After assuming office, Trump largely ignored the issue of the INF Treaty and nuclear stability, even passing on an early offer from Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend the New START agreement, which caps both Russia and the United States at 1,550 strategic offensively deployed nuclear weapons and will expire on Feb. 5, 2021, unless extended by a term of up to five years. Since then, there has been no evidence that Trump or any senior member of his administration has engaged with Russia in any serious way to bring it back into compliance with the INF Treaty. While the Defense Department’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review does briefly mention the agreement, it includes no strategy to restore Russian compliance and instead uses Russia’s violations to justify considering a new generation of sea-launched, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

Despite the opportunity they themselves may have created, there has also been no serious or sustained attempt to leverage the threat of withdrawal to bring Russia back to the table. And since National Security Advisor John Bolton, an anti-arms control hard-liner, joined the administration in April, matters have only gotten worse. He has shown no interest in preserving the treaty or in investing in the hard work of coordinating with U.S. allies to build support for Washington’s position. It is not even clear a single meeting of the National Security Council has been convened to discuss the INF Treaty with the president.

Should the United States follow through on its threat to precipitously pull out of the INF Treaty, Russia will continue to build and deploy intermediate-range missiles, and its treaty violation will be essentially absolved. The demise of the treaty would render useless efforts to condemn Russia diplomatically or impose sanctions. It is not even clear the United States would retain a legal basis to levy sanctions over a treaty violation after killing the agreement. And instead of focusing global attention on Russia’s violation of the Cold War-era pact, it is the United States that will come across as the threat to nuclear stability and predictability.

Of course, both countries share responsibility for the current dangerous state of nuclear affairs, but Russia is the one that benefits when the United States is divided from its European allies and from the collapse of the rules-based order that Washington has championed for over 70 years. Unilateral withdrawal from the INF Treaty could not benefit Putin more if he had scripted it himself.

Are there good reasons to kill the treaty?

Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty and other arms control agreements are legitimate concerns. Washington rightly cares when Moscow deviates from an agreement and when it threatens the United States and its allies. But let’s not kid ourselves that this concern is the true force behind Trump’s planned decision to kill the agreement. He has rarely acted to counter Russian threats to the United States or its allies, whom he sees more as freeloaders than friends. More than by Russia’s action, however, the INF Treaty withdrawal appears to be predominantly motivated by a combination of anti-arms control voices and the military’s interest in developing new missiles to counter China’s missile capabilities.

The INF Treaty limits the United States and Russia, but not China, from possessing mid-range, ground-launched missiles. There have been some thoughtful discussions about whether the United States should address China’s large arsenal of intermediate-range missile forces if the INF Treaty ceased to exist—and if so, how. And there may be some merit to the idea of the United States gaining additional capabilities in Asia to counter China. It is much less clear, however, how systems prohibited by the treaty—should the United States develop and deploy them in the region—improve military strength or deterrence in Asia or elsewhere. The United States already has intermediate-range air- and ship-based missiles, as well as shorter-range systems that can target Chinese forces, to say nothing of its strategic nuclear weapons. It is also not clear that any American allies would agree to host new U.S. intermediate-range missiles, nuclear or conventional, on their territory. The United States could place such missiles in Guam, but because it can already fly bombers from Guam, it is hard to see how land-based missiles there provide a significant advantage over the status quo.

This debate, of course, is only beginning. The burden of proof, however, should be on those arguing that the benefits of deploying such missiles in Asia outweigh the consequences of ending safeguards in Europe. And in this discussion, a hard look at how deploying a short flight time missile within range of China might lead Beijing to vastly increase the size of or its reliance on its own nuclear and missile arsenals. It is possible that instead of deterring China, such a move would undermine the concept of strategic and crisis stability in East Asia and lead China to vastly increase its capabilities. In other words, just because the United States might be able to deploy intermediate-range missiles in Asia does not mean it should, or that it would be more secure if it did.

Can the New START treaty survive Trump?

Even if there were merit to the argument that the INF Treaty has outlived its usefulness, the looming question about New START is impossible to avoid. New START is the last binding constraint on U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear systems. It requires highly intrusive and reliable on-site inspections inside the nuclear arsenals of both countries. The predictability and transparency this agreement provides are critical to maintaining stability—what is left of it—between the two nuclear superpowers.

Moreover, New START was the instrument through which the Pentagon gained broad support for the U.S. effort to modernize its aging nuclear forces. Its expiration without renewal would be the final blow to efforts to stave off a full-blown nuclear arms race between Washington and Moscow, undermine the United States’ ability to track Russian nuclear forces, cost billions of dollars in intelligence activities to replace, and undermine the basis for nuclear restraint globally. It would also blow up any semblance of bipartisan support for nuclear arms control systems and could result in a dramatic, and some would argue long overdue, downsizing of the U.S. nuclear modernization program, which is now slated to cost some $1.7 trillion over the next three decades.

And all signs point to New START dying at the hands of Trump and Bolton, who could withdraw in advance of the renewal date. Strike one: the fact that Obama negotiated it—an original sin in Trump’s eyes. Strike two: The agreement constrains U.S. nuclear capabilities, something that Trump does not understand and that chafes Bolton, who has objections to any agreement that limits U.S. freedom of action. Strike three: Trump believes he is a master negotiator and that by getting tough he can not only bring Russia to the table, but also get a better deal than Obama, Ronald Reagan, or any of his predecessors.

Despite the odds against it, there remains a glimmer of hope for New START. Unlike the Iran nuclear deal or the INF Treaty, New START has universal backing from the uniformed and civilian leaders in the Defense Department and in the intelligence community. Even in the run-up to the Iran deal, there were some in the Pentagon who wanted to challenge Tehran over both regional and missile activities. There is little, if any, such case being made against New START. The inspections and constraints it puts on Russia and the money it saves for the intelligence community made clear in 2010 that its adoption was in America’s national security interests. The same remains true today.

Two possible futures

Sadly, widespread support for New START will not be enough to convince Trump. Which means there are two possible paths ahead.

This first is one in which New START dies or is killed outright by Trump. The treaty gives either country the right to withdraw based on supreme national interests.

Withdrawal would produce a dangerous future in which the risk of miscalculation is high, and in which both the United States and Russia develop systems they believe are stabilizing but in fact increase the risk of nuclear use by the other. Any hint that Russia is accelerating its nuclear efforts will spur the United States to do the same. Does missile or bomber gap ring a bell?

The second future is one in which Trump gets to stroke his ego by negotiating a fig leaf of a new treaty, backed by the real inspections and predictability that form the heart of New START.

While Trump probably won’t agree to a New START extension as a favor to Putin, he might do it to help promote his own narrative. He thinks of himself as a negotiating master, and his new trade deal with Canada and Mexico shows that he will accept minor changes to an existing agreement just to be able to claim victory.

Thus, the best-case outcome would be for Trump and Putin to agree to a new short-term deal that lowers their arsenals to a new level—say, 1,250 offensive strategic nuclear weapons each—and combine it with an extension of the New START pact, which would provide the needed verification. To make it even more attractive, Russia should name the agreement the Treaty on the Reduction of Ultimate Military Programs (TRUMP). How could he resist?

This would be far from ideal. But such an outcome is far preferable to one in which the INF Treaty and New START cease to exist and both countries try to out arms race the other. While it should be clear that the premature demise of viable and valuable arms control agreements undermines U.S. security and global systems of stability, this may not be an argument that works on the Trump administration, where logic and facts rarely apply.

Despite the attempt by many to bury them, however, verifiable and binding arms control agreements are not vestiges of the Cold War, nor have they outgrown their value. The United States and its allies need them now more than ever—with Russia and if possible with China. In relying only on unconstrained American might and leaving a proven and valuable tool on the cutting room floor, the Trump White House has forgotten the lessons of history and is leading the country and the world into dangers we thought were abandoned forever.

Jon B. Wolfsthal is the director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and a senior advisor at Global Zero. He was U.S. President Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation. He serves on the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and helps set the time of the doomsday clock. Twitter: @JBWolfsthal