A crowning achievement of the Ronald Reagan presidency – the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987 – could soon be eliminated by President Trump. Trump’s announced intention to withdraw from this important arms control treaty with Russia would be a big mistake that would make our dangerous world even more dangerous.
Before President Reagan signed the treaty with the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles were poised to hit Western European cities in as little as eight minutes – starting a global nuclear war that could end civilization as we know it and kill billions of people. Eight minutes.
When the Soviet Union began placing these weapons of mass destruction within striking distance of Western Europe, President Jimmy Carter was both confident and ambivalent. Confident that the threat was mitigated by existing American nuclear capabilities; ambivalent to the fear that Western European leaders and their people felt at the prospect of a nuclear first strike by the Soviet Union.
When President Reagan assumed office, he knew he needed to act. He had paid very close attention to how the Soviets behaved. He had no illusions about what they sought and what they were willing to do to achieve their nefarious goals, and said so publicly.
Still, President Reagan believed a better relationship with Moscow – based on realism – was in the best interests of not only both countries, but of world peace. Reagan worked hard to establish a dialogue with his Soviet counterpart.
After seven years of negotiations, tactical maneuvering and occasional bluster, President Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations have asserted that the Russian Federation (in its role as successor state to the Soviet Union) has violated the INF Treaty by developing ground-launched cruise missiles. They are right. The belligerent Russian President Vladimir Putin has deliberately violated the INF Treaty multiple times.
The Russians, of course, deny they are cheating, but the evidence is indisputable. Even President Trump, ever skeptical of the U.S. intelligence community, has embraced its analysis of Putin’s transgressions.
Additionally, the Trump administration correctly notes that while the U.S. abides by this treaty, Russia flagrantly disregards it. And China freely develops intermediate-range nuclear missiles because is not a signatory to the treaty. Back in 1987, China’s nuclear capability was much lower than it is today.
Still, President Trump should abandon his announced plans to withdraw from the INF Treaty. Pulling out of the agreement would harm our national security and the security of our European allies.
First, there’s a critical legal question: Can a president extract our country from a Senate-ratified treaty without the consent of the Senate? What will be the impact on our international treaty negotiations if foreign leaders think any treaty an American president signs might be in force only until the next president takes office?
Second, let’s remember what the INF Treaty was designed to do. Its purpose was to reduce the catastrophic threat that a heavily nuclear-armed Soviet Union posed to Europe – a threat that could kick off the deadliest war in human history, by several orders of magnitude.
While there is no longer a Soviet Union, Russian strongman Putin has shown an alarming willingness to flex his country’s military muscle at great peril to a free Europe. His illegal annexation of Crimea is but one example of the danger Moscow still poses. That’s why no European leader has publicly endorsed President Trump’s plans to withdraw from the INF Treaty.
In and of itself, the INF Treaty does not totally eradicate the danger Russia poses, but it reduces it. The Cold War may be over, but Russia continues to harbor desires to expand its sphere of influence and control.
Unlike many signed agreements between world leaders that are little more than photo opportunities, the INF Treaty actually resulted in something positive. It led to a real reduction in the number of weapons of mass destruction. Even the most hawkish among us admit that the elimination of an entire class of nuclear weapons was and is a good thing for the world.
Withdrawing from the INF Treaty will lead to a new arms race. President Trump has said as much. That will prove very costly and dangerous for the United States, Russia and the entire planet. Dramatically increasing our defense spending to fund this new arms race, while cutting taxes further as President Trump has said he wants to do, would inevitably send our national deficit and debt soaring.
Being freed from obligations spelled out in the INF Treaty will embolden Putin to unabashedly ramp up his country’s nuclear arsenal, which would pose a grave threat to peace and security everywhere. Like it or not, the U.S. is the only superpower in a position to prevent that.
It is clear that Russia has violated the INF Treaty. Russia should be called out on that and dealt with appropriately. But Russia’s behavior is the problem – not the treaty itself.
President Trump seems to like the idea of undoing what his predecessors have done. Sometimes that makes sense. If a previous president signed “a bad deal,” then Trump should get us out of it.
But the INF Treaty was not “a bad deal.” Even President Trump has not made that claim. It was a good deal that made our planet safer.
Trump’s desire to withdraw from the treaty is a direct result of neoconservatives such as National Security Adviser John Bolton, who have actively advocated for belligerence and intervention over tact and diplomacy.
Bolton and other neoconservatives have pushed for the U.S. to withdraw from the INF Treaty and seem gleeful at the nuclear arms buildup that would follow. President Reagan committed himself to opposing the Soviet Union, but not once did he ever revel in the prospect of a nuclear arms buildup.
The INF Treaty is a good agreement. It was a landmark achievement in securing world peace, nuclear disarmament and an end to the Cold War.
That said, the world has changed a lot since President Reagan and Gorbachev were in office. Knowing President Reagan, it’s a safe bet that he would be the first one to say that if the treaty needs better enforcement mechanisms or updating modifications, then so be it.
Those who knew Ronald Reagan well recognized that the threat to mankind posed by nuclear weapons weighed on his mind. He was not a man given to worry per se, but he was deeply concerned about the fact that there existed weapons that could result in what is known as the “MAD” policy, meaning Mutually Assured Destruction. That’s what the INF Treaty was all about – stopping the world from descending into MAD.
To his credit, President Trump has adopted President Reagan’s view that it is better to talk to people instead of about them. That’s why President Trump meets with foes such as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, among others. He understands that its part of the job of being the leader of the free world.
It’s also part of President Trump’s job to improve – not eliminate – good agreements that need to be updated to reflect changed circumstances. Presidents should not “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
Admittedly it’s easier to just start over, but that’s not what we elect presidents to do. We elect them to do the hard work of fixing what’s broken while keeping what is working.
As President Reagan often said, “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” That was true when he was in office and it is just as true now.
Craig Shirley is the author of four bestsellers on former U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Craig is the founder of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs.