Trump has made a strikingly similar case—condemning the treaty for rendering the United States shackled and outgunned by a resurgent Russia and rising China, even as he floats the idea of one day reviving and expanding the agreement to include other nuclear-armed states.
Rand Paul: The U.S. must engage with Russia.
Richard Burt, who helped negotiate the INF Treaty during the Reagan administration, said that while he’d “love to believe that this is a very clever strategy to get leverage over the Russians” and compel them to adhere to the terms of the treaty, he seriously doubts it.
Instead, he thinks Trump’s decision is an effort to shake off restraints and assert unfettered American sovereignty—just as the administration has done by withdrawing from the Paris climate pact and trade agreements.
What happens next?
History teaches that leaders only agree to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons when they improve relations with adversaries and no longer fear the types of war they once did, the nuclear-weapons expert George Perkovich once told me.
If that’s the case, however, the inverse is also true: When the ranks of adversaries swell and the specter of war looms large, nuclear buildups are a natural temptation.
Trump’s intention to quit the INF and his hesitancy to renew another Obama-era nuclear-arms-control accord with Russia are in one sense symptoms of just how fierce competition between the world’s great powers has become.
In walking away from the treaty, the president is recognizing a “changed reality” in both technological and strategic terms, Bolton declared on Tuesday during a visit to Russia.
Burt, who is now a managing partner at the firm McLarty Associates, predicted that a U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty would prompt Russia to again deploy intermediate-range missiles and the United States to react by rolling out new sea- and air-based weapons systems even if it doesn’t redeploy ground-based missiles to Europe. (America’s NATO allies, which might not agree to host these missiles, have so far reacted to Trump’s announcement with a mix of praise and criticism.)
Burt added that the United States and Russia are now both pouring vast sums of money into upgrading strategic bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and shiny new objects like hypersonic glide vehicles and anti-satellite systems.
Read: Trump’s pointless untruths about U.S. nuclear weapons
“We’re in a process of sleepwalking into a new nuclear-arms race” with no restraints, Burt told me. When he served in government, in the 1980s, there was “a hypersensitivity [to] and awareness of the dangers of a nuclear conflict.” No longer.
What does all this mean for efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons?
When it comes to arms-control and nuclear-nonproliferation agreements, Trump has shown himself to be a consummate deal breaker. At the same time, in his pursuit of a nuclear deal with North Korea, a better nuclear deal with Iran, and now an expanded INF Treaty with Russia and China, he has yet to prove himself a deal maker.