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Consider the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a pillar of the US-Russia nuclear arms control architecture, dead. In October, US President Donald Trump announced his intention to ‘terminate’ the treaty, citing repeated Russian violations. Subsequent negotiations with Moscow proved fruitless, leading both countries to officially suspend their treaty obligations – much to the chagrin of those involved in the 1985–87 negotiations as well as US national security and arms control experts.
Whether Moscow’s lamentations are also sincere is unclear. President Vladimir Putin has long been sceptical of the treaty’s merits; his third presidential term saw Russia largely ignore the protests of the administration of US President Barack Obama, partly because of the ambiguity of US accusations and Moscow’s belief that the US itself was non-compliant. Some Russian observers say that the Kremlin stands to gain from the treaty’s demise. Indeed, Russia is already moving to openly develop hitherto prohibited missile systems while maintaining that it is open to resuming talks on saving the treaty, which it claims has been repeatedly violated by the US – 95 times, to be precise.
The supposed benefits for Russia have led some of Trump’s critics to speculate that Washington withdrew from the treaty to please Moscow, an already familiar rationalisation of the president’s often erratic foreign policy decisions. As one such critic, Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, declared: ‘Now we know why Trump pulled out. Putin wanted it’.
This conspiratorial interpretation overlooks the evidence suggesting that Trump’s decision was likely driven by his obsession with nuclear modernisation and transactional worldview as well as US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s unilateralism and arms control scepticism, the latter a quality shared by many of Trump’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill.
As president, Trump has stressed the importance of modernising the US’s nuclear arsenal, advancing a $1.2-trillion proposal and questioning the US’s obligations under various arms control treaties in the name of becoming ‘top of the pack’. He has engaged in what critics have called a ‘nuclear spending spree’ in an attempt to deliver on promises to ‘strengthen and expand’ and ‘modernise and rebuild’ the country’s nuclear forces, at the risk of a new arms race.
This, on top of a transactional worldview that has made Trump deeply hostile to ‘bad deals’ seen to be leaving the US at a disadvantage relative to allies in NATO, partners like Mexico, and adversaries like Iran alike.
Trump has received particular encouragement from his national security adviser, a long-time critic of the INF Treaty. A ‘serial arms control killer’, Bolton has never met an arms control agreement he has not wished to dismantle. (As under secretary of state for arms control and international security affairs under President George W Bush, Bolton successfully pushed for the US’s 2002 withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia.) Since arriving at the White House in April 2018, he has been perfectly positioned to kill more than just the INF Treaty, the demise of which he endorsed in a 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed.
Just a month after Bolton replaced H R McMaster, the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, Russia, China, the E3 (France, Germany and the UK), and the EU. Since that time, nascent talks with Russia on space and nuclear arms control and norms of conduct in cyberspace have made no progress on Bolton’s watch as Trump’s de facto envoy to Russia, an outcome that Russian observers predicted upon his hiring.
Bolton is joined in his anti-arms control crusade – an endeavour described by some as ‘his life’s work’ – by like-minded unilateralists inside the White House as well as on Capitol Hill. In addition to Tim Morrison, the National Security Council official and ‘nuclear superhawk’ described as Bolton’s ‘very own John Bolton’, Bolton worked closely with Republican Senators Tom Cotton and Jon Kyl to bring about the INF Treaty’s demise.
Cotton, a critic of the Treaty on Open Skies and the co-author of legislation that would prevent the extension of New START, which expires in 2021, has sought to exit the INF Treaty since at least 2015; the other co-author, Representative Liz Cheney, joined more than forty House Republicans in calling on Trump to withdraw from the treaty and stop ‘allow[ing] the [US] to continue to be taken advantage of by other nations.’ Kyl and 24 other Senate Republicans, including Cotton, have already set their sights on New START, urging Trump not to extend it in a letter late last year. ‘We know you agree that arms control is not an end to itself’, it said.
Indeed, one of the reasons why Trump has taken this decision so lightly is the arms control scepticism that now defines the Republican Party. This, despite the key role of President Ronald Reagan, who joined Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in signing the INF Treaty in 1987, in the creation of the US-Russia nuclear arms control architecture.
To be sure, Republicans, especially in the Senate, have opposed some of Trump’s foreign policies, from his support for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi military intervention in Yemen to his plan to withdraw US forces from Syria and Afghanistan. But they are unlikely to offer resistance when it comes to the INF Treaty and, potentially, New START; at least, that was the signal they sent when they applauded the US’s withdrawal from the former during Trump’s most recent State of the Union address and, before that, met the US’s dangerous withdrawal from the JCPOA with a combination of vocal support and muted criticism.
Republicans, in the White House as well as in Congress, have evidently decided that the costs of arms control outweigh the benefits – a risky gamble. Some of the US’s closest allies fear that the INF Treaty’s demise holds grave consequences for European security as well as global strategic stability – as do Democrats in Congress, despite their present stance on Russia. (Two-thirds of American voters, and more than half of Republicans, also oppose withdrawal from the INF Treaty.)
Whether critics’ concerns are ultimately vindicated remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that there is much more to the INF Treaty’s demise than just Russian violations, or the relationship between Putin and Trump.
Lincoln Pigman (@lincolnpigman) is a master’s student in Oxford University’s Oxford School of Global and Area Studies and a graduate of King’s College London’s Department of War Studies.
BANNER IMAGE: The 2019 US State of the Union address. Courtesy of the White House
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.