In a Defense One article published on October 29th, BGS Founder and Managing Director Jeremy Bash and BGS Vice President Mark Simakovsky discuss President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty.
Four Perfectly Trump Reasons Why He Wants Out of the INF Treat
Within the president’s haphazard foreign policy, there is logical coherence to him quitting a nuclear treaty Russia ignores. But it won’t make us safer.
As originally appeared in Defense One
This month, buried within a campaign rally in Montana, President Trump made one of the most consequential defense policy announcements of his presidency: his intention to withdraw the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia.
The INF treaty was designed to prevent the spread of close-in weapons that would give a nation under attack only minutes or seconds to respond. It restricted the U.S. and Russia from fielding land-based nuclear and conventional missiles that had a range of roughly 300 to 3,500 miles. These weapons represented the most destabilizing type of missile systems: cheapest to build, maneuverable, and closest to the target. The treaty was signed by President Reagan in 1987 and ratified by the Senate the following year.
It was an open secret in Washington that compliance with the INF was lopsided. While the U.S. adhered to the treaty, the Russians quietly researched, tested, and ultimately deployed weapons, such as high-speed cruise missiles, that violated the INF accord. The U.S. offset those weapons with hundreds of air-launched and sea-launched warheads, allowing us to maintain deterrence in the face of Russian non-compliance. But the treaty had few fans in Washington. Moreover, the U.S. defense establishment worried about China’s unconstrained development of similar short and medium-range systems, a threat that seemed to go unanswered while Washington unilaterally clung to the INF.
Some have wondered why Trump, whose fondness for Russia defies all Republican orthodoxy, would leave a treaty with Russia and risk a costly new arms race.
The answer lies in the four major strands of Trump’s seemingly haphazard foreign policy: his desire to build U.S. military capacity, including nuclear weapons, to contain China; to get out of deals where countries are perceived to be cheating against U.S. interests; and to create a closer relationship with Russia in general, and Putin in particular.
But then there’s the fourth pillar of Trumpism, which is decidedly pro-Russia. This is where his relationship with Putin makes things dangerous.
The corollary to the “I-ended-a-bad-deal” approach is that Trump believes he can cut really good deals. The president loves to boast that he has made “better” deals with Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, and he’s working on one with North Korea. He loves to announce deals, even if they are substantively similar to the ones he ended, like NAFTA, or when he doesn’t always know what he’s agreed to. After his summit with Kim Jung Un, he announced a halt to military exercises with South Korea, sending the Pentagon scrambling.
With clear adversaries, like Iran, Trump doesn’t want a deal; he prefers a state of conflict. But with leaders he considers friendly — even China’s Xi Jinping — he believes he can forge a better agreement.
In that vein, what comes after INF withdrawal? Trump’s track record suggests he will pursue a new deal with Putin, whom he admires and with whom he has already shown a penchant for secret diplomacy in Helsinki. Both presidents have been eager to engage and cooperate on a range of issues, including arms control, Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, counter-terrorism, and trade. The INF withdrawal may be a precursor to a wider U.S.-Russia agreement between the two presidents, which will be the primary agenda item for discussion when they meet at the World War I centennial commemoration in November in Paris.
The new Trump-Putin deal would likely allow both nations to build new weapons far in excess of what our generals think necessary. Russia’s expanded arsenal would threaten American allies in Europe; our arsenal would be designed to deter China while maintaining optionality for Iran and North Korea. Such a deal would simultaneously achieve all four of Trump’s foreign-policy objectives.
What’s less clear is how such a deal would make us safer. It would weaken the prospects for extending other arms control agreements with Russia. China would accelerate its burgeoning nuclear weapons program. India and Pakistan might follow suit. Iran could look to break out a weapons program, triggering nuclear research in Saudi Arabia, UAE, and on and on.
Without treaties, nations pursue their own interests — or what Trump calls “nationalism” — in the form of weapons programs and arms races. No one could be sure where all of this “nationalism” would lead.
What we do know is that a catastrophic confrontation among nations would be far more likely than it is today, speeding us all back to a dark and dangerous nuclear era we thought we had left behind.