Don’t Tear Up This Treaty

Arms control isn’t perfect. But abandoning treaties without a plan for the future is dangerous.

ryan garcia

The Editorial Board

The editorial board represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher. It is separate from the newsroom and the Op-Ed section. | Dec. 15, 2018

Every American president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama has successfully negotiated an agreement with the Soviet Union, or the Russian federation, to reduce the threat from both countries’ vast nuclear arsenals. More than a dozen treaties limiting nuclear testing, nuclear weapons, activities in outer space and missile defense have been part of this mix.

The need for such restraint is irrefutable: No weapons are more lethal and potentially more destabilizing to the world than those that have earned the moniker “city killers.”Although the pantheon of arms control agreements isn’t perfect — not surprising given the complexity of the weapons systems and the calculations involved in balancing risk — they have enabled the United States and Russia for decades to manage their strategic competition without going to war.

Owing to these treaty commitments, the two powers, which still hold the vast majority of all the nuclear weapons in the world, have reduced their combined total of warheads from roughly 63,000 in 1986 to about 8,100 today. Most crucial, the agreements helped avoid nuclear conflict, even during the darkest days of the Cold War.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced plans to begin formally withdrawing from one agreement, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, if Russia doesn’t correct a major violation — testing and deploying a new treaty-banned missile — within the next 60 days. The pact eliminated an entire class of weapons, some 2,692 ground-based missiles that can fly in the range of roughly 300 to 3,000 miles and their launchers.

Meanwhile, administration officials have suggested that the New Start Treaty, which has required both sides to reduce deployed nuclear warheads from a maximum of 2,200 in 2010 to 1,550 this year, may be allowed to expire in 2021, even though Russia, like the United States, is still observing it.

Mr. Trump is justified in his concern about Russia’s noncompliance with the I.N.F. Treaty, as are NATO officials, who on Dec. 4, for the first time, joined the Trump administration in publicly condemning the violation.

Russian leaders have their own security concerns, since they are geographically close to several nations, including North Korea, China, India and Pakistan, that have growing intermediate-range missile forces, and because the United States has a formidable advantage in sea-based and air-launched missiles.

But unilaterally abrogating one of the most consequential arms agreements in history would be dangerous and cause new tensions with European allies who are already skeptical of Mr. Trump’s commitments to the continent’s security and don’t want the United States to abandon the treaty.

By announcing plans to withdraw, as the president did with earlier agreements on climate change, Asian trade and Iran’s nuclear program, he is again undercutting American global leadership and putting the United States in position to be blamed for the I.N.F. Treaty’s collapse, rather than Russia, the actual culprit.

It would be even more harmful to let New Start, with its mandated caps on nuclear warhead deployments and valuable requirements for verification and data exchanges, unravel. Unlike the I.N.F. Treaty, New Start restrains core Russian strategic forces that could directly target the United States, not just its allies.

The Russian violation of the I.N.F. Treaty centers on an SSC-8 land-based cruise missile. American officials say it can carry nuclear and conventional warheads, is fired from a mobile launcher and has been tested at a distance of between 300 and 3,000 miles, the range prohibited by the treaty. The missiles, located in western and central Russia, are intended to intimidate Europe, especially former Soviet states aligned with the West.

But Russia so far probably has no more than 50 of them, a relatively small number. While threatening to Europe, the missile doesn’t change the balance of power with the United States. And Washington has other weapons, not prohibited by the treaty, to counter it.

Which encourages speculation that the administration may be more interested in abandoning the I.N.F. Treaty so that it can deploy medium-range missiles to Asia. China is a growing threat that relies on similar missiles for 95 percent of its ground-based fleet. It also is not part of the treaty and is not restricted in its missile development. That same goes for Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and the other six countries with fast-growing missile arsenals.

Treaties are meant to be adhered to, and if one side is cheating, then something has to be done. Until recently Russia denied it had violated the agreement at all, even though hawks in Moscow have been calling for withdrawal from it for more than a decade. Despite several attempts, the Obama administration failed to persuade Russia to return to compliance.

Given current American-Russian tensions, saving the treaty through negotiations may be a long shot. But the Trump administration has an obligation to try. Otherwise, Russia is expected to expand its medium-range missile production, menacing Europe and Asia even more.

Abandoning the INF Treaty would be a step toward a new arms race, undermining strategic stability and increasing the threat of miscalculation or technical failure leading to an immensely destructive war,” two of the main I.N.F. negotiators, George Shultz, the former secretary of state, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, wrote recently in The Washington Post.

“The answer to the problems that have come up is not to abandon the I.N.F. Treaty but to preserve and fix it,” they said.

A diplomatic initiative would require a concerted NATO effort. One solution being discussed by American experts would involve Russia acceding to American inspections of the Russian cruise missiles and the Americans allowing Russian inspections of American Aegis missile defense systems based in Romania and planned for Poland. Moscow, fearing the system could be used to launch offensive intermediate-range missiles, sometimes brands it a treaty violation, but most independent experts do not.

The goal would be an agreement under which Russian inspectors periodically get to examine the Aegis system to verify that it is incapable of launching offensive cruise missiles; Russia would modify its SSC-8 cruise missile so it can’t fly beyond 500 miles.

On Friday, the Russian foreign ministry said it would be willing to discuss mutual inspections with Washington, a hopeful sign.

Such an outcome would require political will and the kind of sustained multilateral diplomacy that the Trump team seems incapable of organizing. The one nuclear agreement Mr. Trump is pursuing is with North Korea, but his theatrical, incoherent approach has so far yielded only minimal, temporary gains.

One major question is at what point the United States and Russia ought to try to open talks with China and other countries armed with missiles and nuclear weapons. China and the others have resisted being drawn into such a process, at least until the United States and Russia shrink their arsenals even more.

But until some better formula is found for ensuring strategic balance and limiting the spread of the world’s most lethal weapons — until Mr. Trump at least has some plan for what comes next — it’s a dangerous mistake for him to jettison existing agreements like I.N.F. and New Start.

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