It’s Wrong to Abandon the INF Treaty
(The Bloomberg View) -- The Trump administration is apparently about to tell Russia that it means to withdraw from the 1987 treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces. It has grounds, because Russia is cheating. And the treaty is a problem in another way: As it stands, it ties America’s hands in responding to China’s missile programs. But simply abandoning the agreement is not the smart way to proceed.
Concern over the INF, by which the U.S. and the Soviet Union pledged to eliminate ground-launched missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers (roughly 300 to 3,400 miles), isn’t new. The Obama administration accused Russia of violating it in 2014 by testing a prohibited cruise missile; last year the Trump administration accused Russia of deploying the weapon.
If one party reneges on a treaty, the other has no obligation to remain bound. But to abandon the treaty without careful diplomatic preparation is unwise. The U.S. should first try to get Russia to comply — and to bring in China as well. There might be little hope of success in either case, but making the effort, and being seen to make it, is a strategic necessity.
If the U.S. were to develop new land-based intermediate-range missiles — which, by the way, would demand substantial new funding — it would need allies willing to help deploy them. Persuading European partners to cooperate would be difficult in any event, but if the Trump administration is seen as the wrecker of a landmark arms-control treaty, it will be next to impossible.
Giving Russia one last chance to comply, while leaving the world in no doubt that it has in fact cheated, would improve the prospects of success. There’d be no cost in terms of readiness, because treaty-compliant R&D for a new weapon could move ahead regardless. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has said he wants to extend the New START nuclear-weapons treaty that is due to expire in 2021: Talks on both treaties could proceed hand-in-hand.
A similar calculation applies to China. Someday, the U.S. might find it useful to position conventionally armed, land-based intermediate-range weapons to counter the threat posed by China’s deployments. The INF treaty, which applies to both nuclear and conventional ground-based missiles, rules this out. But if the U.S. were to abandon the treaty, it would still need allies willing to help deploy the weapons. A sincere and visible effort now to fold China into a cooperative arms-control regime, even if it’s far from certain to succeed, would make it easier to get that support later.
Not for the first time, Trump is setting the value of U.S. allies at zero. It’s the most dangerous of his many errors. The U.S. needed allies to win the first Cold War, and it will need them to prevail in years ahead. A far-sighted administration would not walk away from the INF as though allies don’t count.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.
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