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Trump's INF withdrawal is negligent and regressive

By: Alexander Chang

01 May, 2019

On February 1st, 2019, Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). More than 30 years after the end of the Cold War, agreements such as the INF may seem easy to dismiss as relics of another era. However, ensuring these arms control regimes continue to remain intact is as important as ever. Trump’s decision to leave the agreement is reckless and sets a dangerous precedent for future nuclear cooperation.

The INF Treaty was signed between the SALT and the START series of United-States-Soviet Union arms control treaties. Unlike its predecessor SALT I, however, the INF restricted missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Often launched by ground-based systems, these medium-range weapons were not covered by the SALT I treaty, and could reach most U.S. allies in continental Europe. Scaling back these arsenals removed the most immediate nuclear threat to the continent.

Although it was signed in 1987, just years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the treaty led to the destruction of the vast majority of both countries’ medium-range missiles. Soviet successor states also abided by the treaty, relinquishing all of their armaments by 2002. Unfortunately, the treaty’s position has only become more tenuous. Since 2014, the State Department alleged that Russia violates the treaty, a charge the Kremlin has denied. Others have expressed concern that the limited scope of INF will destabilize other regions by allowing countries such as China and Iran to develop the same weapons. It was based on these grievances that the Trump Administration terminated the agreement.

While these concerns are legitimate, the President’s decision to scrap the agreement altogether is incredibly negligent. While serious disputes over the treaty exist, the fact that both countries still publicly accepted its edicts as customary law is an important foundation for potential for reform. While the Trump Administration has frequently criticized international agreements, the fact that the world’s largest nuclear powers can agree on these ideas--however imperfect in practice--sends a strong message to the global community about what the guiding principles of arms control should be.

The move may also alarm our traditional allies, who have been continuously alienated by Trump’s commentary. With Russia’s efforts to disrupt the democratic process expanding to Western Europe, the reintroduction of intermediate-range missiles to the region would revive an old tool with which Russia has traditionally threatened our partners. The imminence of conflict during the Cold War was in part fueled by the fact that these missiles were located in such close proximity to Western Europe. If Trump fails to give the treaty his support, both countries could quickly turn back the clock and return to previous arsenal levels.

Even ardent supporters of the President should be alarmed by this move--as a candidate in the 2016 Election, Trump said repeatedly that the United States should improve relations with Russia. Withdrawing from the INF, however, runs directly counter to this objective. Giving a green light to the development of nuclear arms on Russia’s doorstep is a provocation, not an olive branch.

Underlying this folly is Trump’s total lack of understanding of the seriousness of nuclear weapons. During the campaign, the President asserted that Japan, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea should develop their own arsenals—developments that would seriously jeopardize nonproliferation efforts—and remarked that that “if we have nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them?”

This inability to appreciate the principles of deterrence has led Trump to risk normalizing nuclear armaments by abolishing the treaties that emphasize the need for countries to restrain themselves. Concerningly the INF may only be the first casualty. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has signaled that New START—the landmark 2010 arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia—could be terminated soon. Instead of withdrawing from our international commitments, the Trump Administration should commit to the difficult task of engaging with both our allies and adversaries to rework these agreements. Choosing the path of brinksmanship will only spark a new, dangerous, arms race—one that will roll back the tremendous progress that has been made in making Europe and the world at large safer places.