Trump stokes debate about new Cold War arms race


President Trump’s announcement that the United States is preparing to withdraw from a decades-old treaty with Russia credited with helping end the Cold War has stoked debate about whether a new arms race is on the horizon.

Trump hung his decision to unilaterally withdraw on the argument that Moscow has been violating the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty for several years, something with which current and former officials and analysts broadly agree.

Still, the move’s timing has triggered some criticism, and it has raised questions about what it could mean for the global strategic landscape going forward. Some believe the United States will now look to deploy new missile systems to Asia and Europe.

{mosads}There have also been concerns about what the decision means for a separate treaty known as New Start, which caps the number of nuclear warheads the United States and Russia are allowed to deploy and is due for extension in 2021.

Indeed, on Monday, Trump pledged to “build up” the U.S. nuclear arsenal in order to pressure other nations to come to the table on future agreements.

“Until people come to their senses, we will build it up,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “It’s a threat to whoever you want. And it includes China. And it includes Russia. And it includes anybody else that wants to play that game.”

Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are scheduled to meet Nov. 11 in Paris, and Trump has invited Putin to visit Washington next year. Both meetings represent opportunities for further discussions on the treaty’s fate.

The landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed by then-President Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, eliminated conventional and nuclear ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 300 to 3,400 miles.

The Obama administration first publicly accused Russia of violating the treaty in 2014, and U.S. officials have been trying unsuccessfully to use diplomatic levers to bring Moscow back into compliance for four years. Moscow denies breaching the agreement.

“The U.S. has been trying to get Russia to return to compliance with the INF treaty since 2013. We have been engaging with them for five years, and we have made no progress whatsoever,” said Frank Rose, who served as assistant secretary of state for arms control under former President Obama. “I have always been skeptical that the Russians would come back to compliance for political reasons and military reasons.”

Following Trump’s announcement, those who helped negotiate it have been defending its continued utility. Gorbachev and Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz both penned op-eds for The New York Times on Friday arguing for the preservation of the treaty.

“A new arms race has been announced,” the 87-year-old former Soviet leader warned.

“Now is not the time to build larger arsenals of nuclear weapons,” Shultz, 97, wrote in his op-ed. “Now is the time to rid the world of this threat. Leaving the treaty would be a huge step backward. We should fix it, not kill it.”

Critics of the withdrawal, including many vocal Democrats on Capitol Hill, have acknowledged Russia’s violations but chastised the president for not properly consulting U.S. allies or Congress in the decision process.

Some also argue it invites Russia to build up its capabilities at a time of deep tensions.

“Yes, the Russians are in violation of the treaty. Yes, that is unacceptable. Yes, that requires a strong response,” said Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction at the Arms Control Association.

“But an outright withdrawal in the way that President Trump announced is a big mistake. Withdrawing from the treaty frees Russia of all constraints on the production and deployment of its illegal ground-launched cruise missile, thereby increasing the threat to our allies in range of the missile,” Reif added

Trump has earned some praise from those who view the INF treaty as merely constraining the United States, given the violations on the Russian side.

“Arms control treaties only work when both sides abide by them,” said Tom Spoehr, a defense expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “So, if only one side is abiding by it … there is no value in trying to continue to abide by it by yourself.”

Spoehr also said he sees no risks in Trump’s decision. “The Russia you have in the absence of an INF treaty is the Russia you have today,” he said.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton has been arguing for withdrawal from the treaty for years. In 2011, before the Obama administration publicly confirmed Russia’s violation, Bolton wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal arguing the United States should leave the treaty because of China.

China is not a party to the INF Treaty, and much of its missile forces would fall under the treaty’s parameters.

This week, Bolton described the Russian violations of the treaty as a “major factor” in the decision. But he also argued a “new strategic reality” has rendered the treaty unviable, citing emerging capabilities from China, North Korea and Iran.

“There’s a new strategic reality out there,” Bolton said. “This is a Cold War, bilateral ballistic missile-related treaty in a multipolar ballistic missile world.”

The Trump administration has adopted a more aggressive posture toward Beijing on several fronts, including by confronting China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea with routine warship patrols.

Some suspect the U.S. will look to build up its ground missile capabilities in the Pacific region in order to counter Chinese aggression in the absence of constraints under INF.

“I think the United States will probably start pursuing similar long-range precision fires programs designed to counter the Russian missiles in violation of the treaty and will also probably be looking at China and at how these types of missiles enhance our position against China,” said Ian Williams, an expert in missile defense and strategic forces at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But Reif, at the Arms Control Association, said ending the INF Treaty is unnecessary for countering China. That can be accomplished with treaty-compliant air- and sea-launched missiles the U.S. military already has, he argued.

Further, he said, there is little evidence Asian and European allies will want to host U.S. ground-based intermediate-range missiles, meaning the United States will have limited options for deploying the missiles even if it withdraws from the treaty.

Bolton said this week that a formal notice on withdrawal would be issued in “due course,” hinting that it could be months down the line. Under the terms of the treaty, the United States has to formally notify Russia, kicking off a six-month withdrawal process.

It is possible that Trump, who has a penchant for aggressive negotiation tactics, could be using the threat of withdrawal to bring the Russians back into compliance, though experts widely doubt that Moscow would ultimately concede.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) expressed that hope shortly after Trump first announced his decision.

“This could be somewhat like the fact that they were going to end [the North American Free Trade Agreement], and then ended up negotiating some small changes,” Corker said on CNN last weekend. “And it looks like that it’s going to be extended. So this could be something that is just a precursor to try to get Russia to come into compliance.”

Bolton, though, has insisted Trump’s announcement is not a negotiating ploy.

House Armed Services Committee Republicans emailed out a “fact sheet” this week laying out the case for withdrawal, saying concerns about Russia’s violations date as far back as 2008 and that the United States’s continued compliance has led to a “disparity” between U.S. and Chinese missile forces.

“As threats from Russia and China mount, President Trump has little choice but to withdraw from a treaty only the United States is adhering to,” the email said.

Their Democratic counterparts, though, are furious. Armed Services ranking member Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.) penned a four-page letter this week Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanding they personally brief lawmakers on Trump’s decision.

House Armed Services Democrats also emailed out Shultz’s op-ed Friday.

Withdrawal from the INF Treaty, Smith and Engel argued, risks a nuclear arms race, plays into Putin’s hands, divides the United States from it allies and disregards the administration’s own review on how to respond to Russia’s violations.

“We expect a full explanation of why Congress was not even informed of such a decision,” they wrote, “and an explanation of why the administration has chosen to take such precipitous, ill-advised — and potentially reckless — action, rather than working with our allies to increase pressure on Russia to return to compliance under the treaty.” 

Tags Adam Smith Bob Corker China Donald Trump Eliot Engel INF James Mattis Mike Pompeo nuclear arms Nuclear proliferation Russia
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