Right Idea, Wrong Approach by Trump on Nuclear Pact

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The administration of President Donald Trump has a habit of addressing real problems in club-footed and counterproductive ways. If Trump’s recent remarks are to be believed, the White House is about to give the U.S. another self-inflicted wound by announcing its intention to terminate a key arms-control treaty with Russia.

Trump is right that this Cold War-era pact, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, no longer suits American interests. But he’s wrong if he thinks that simply walking away will improve the U.S. competitive position. 

The INF Treaty, signed in 1987, prohibits the U.S. and Russia from producing or deploying ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (about 310 to 3,400 miles). The treaty represented a radical arms-control breakthrough because it was the first time that the superpowers agreed to eliminate an entire class of nuclear delivery systems, and it symbolized the dramatic reduction of East-West tensions that ended the Cold War two years later. Yet the treaty has been living on borrowed time for years due to developments in Europe and Asia.

In Europe, the problem is simple: Russia is cheating. Moscow has been developing and testing a ground-launched cruise missile known as the SSC-8 that violates the treaty. By early 2017, the Kremlin had reportedly deployed the SSC-8 in two separate locations. These deployments have been accompanied by a buildup of short-range Russian nuclear forces (not prohibited by the INF Treaty) and other military capabilities in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania, two Eastern European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

One does not have to be a fire-breathing unilateralist to agree that the U.S. gains no advantage from being the only country that observes an arms-control treaty — and that it sets a terrible precedent to allow violations of nuclear-weapons agreements to go unpunished. Numerous U.S. officials have observed that the current situation is untenable, and the Pentagon has been conducting research and development (permitted under the treaty) of an intermediate-range, ground-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile.

The treaty has also come under pressure in Asia. China, not a party to the accord, has developed the world’s most expansive arsenal of ground-launched cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, and would use them against U.S. allies, military bases and aircraft carriers in the event of war. Should such a war break out, the U.S. might find an arsenal of conventionally armed, INF-range missiles quite useful in sinking Chinese ships and targeting Chinese military capabilities on the mainland — particularly because U.S. aircraft carriers won’t get close enough to China’s coastline to be effective. Yet Washington is handcuffed by a treaty that effectively binds it and no one else.

The question, then, is not whether the U.S. should begin preparing to extricate itself from the accord or find other ways of penalizing Moscow for violating it. The question is how to doit. And here, the Trump administration could take a page from the playbook that produced the treaty in the first place.

The road to the INF treaty began with the Soviet Union’s deployment of SS-20 intermediate-range missiles that could target virtually all of Western Europe in the late 1970s. In response, the U.S. began developing Tomahawk cruise missiles and Pershing-II ballistic missiles that would be deployed in European countries and could, in the case of the Pershing-II, strike Soviet and Warsaw Pact targets in minutes.

The proposed deployment of these missiles was enormously controversial in Europe. So the administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan worked laboriously to bring the allies along, by pledging to first seek an arms-control agreement that would reduce or even prohibit the missiles in question, and then to deploy the Tomahawks and Pershings only if negotiations failed. Dubbed a “dual-track” approach, it was critical in holding NATO together, giving European governments the cover they needed to deploy U.S. missiles on their soil, and thereby providing the alliance with the leverage it would use to negotiate the INF Treaty.

A modern-day rerun might have looked something like this. The U.S. would intensify research and development of INF-capable missiles, while studying, in cooperation with key allies, how those missiles might be used and where they might be stationed in Europe and the Pacific. Because it will take years for these capabilities to be ready for deployment, the administration would also make a diplomatic effort aimed at bringing Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty and perhaps inducing China to join.

This diplomatic gambit would probably fail. The Chinese are too reliant on INF-range missiles to neutralize U.S. power-projection capabilities, and the Russians deny that the SSC-8 violates the treaty despite all the evidence to the contrary. But making the effort would let the administration credibly argue that it had exhausted all options for saving the accord, which would substantially lower the diplomatic costs of withdrawing from it and developing whatever capabilities the U.S. and its allies require.

To all appearances, the Trump administration has laid none of the diplomatic groundwork. Should it withdraw from the treaty, it will invite criticism that it, not Russia, is destroying a landmark arms-control agreement. It will alienate NATO allies who are fed up with Russian prevarication and provocation but do not wish to see NATO-Russia tensions escalate further unless there is no alternative. It will surely be hard pressed to find allies willing to host INF-capable U.S. missiles.

There’s already been some European hand-wringing over the impending demise of a treaty that NATO has called “indispensable,” and even Republican senators such as Bob Corker of Tennessee have questioned whether the administration is moving too hastily. The tragedy of Trump’s policy is not that the problem is wrongly diagnosed, but that the solution causes a self-inflicted wound.

This is more than a pity. It is strategic folly. The U.S has such a strong position over challengers such as Russia because it has dozens of allies that act as force-multipliers for American power. Russian President Vladimir Putin knows this and realizes that he can only get the best of the U.S. if he can divide Washington from its friends. One can only imagine that he’s pleased right now, because the Trump administration is doing this work for him.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His newest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump." 

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