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.
First, withdrawing from INF allows Trump to build new weapons, which he equates with toughness. In 2017, Trump asked Pentagon leaders why they couldn’t build 30,000 warheads (we currently have a stockpile of about 4,000). Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and others told him that doing so would swallow the rest of the defense budget and undermine every arms control and counterproliferation regime on the planet. Trump, according to one account, fumed and later berated the generals for being “weak,” but ultimately yielded to their battle-tested logic. His move on INF — like the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review which calls for new classes of nuclear-tipped sea-based weapons — is an attempt at projecting muscularity of a sort.
Second, withdrawing from INF allows Trump to increase military pressure on China. Getting tough on China is the area where Trump’s mercantilist policies are most aligned with the hawkish wing of the GOP as well as the national security professionals at the Defense Department and in the intelligence community. This tougher approach to China is popular with some in Congress, which has taken a range of measures to contain the growing military and economic strength of China.
Third, Trump loves to say he got America out of “bad” deals. The Iran deal. The Paris Agreement. NAFTA. The Korea-U.S. Free Trade agreement. His narrative is that only an “art-of-the-deal President” can prevent Americans from getting taken for a ride. His position on the INF is also a precursor to the administration’s likely refusal to extend the New START Treaty with Russia, which limits longer-ranger weapons and which will expire in 2021 if not extended.
All of the above has a logical coherence.
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.