Can Trump and Putin Save Nuclear Arms Control In Paris?

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

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Their Nov. 11 meeting might just be their last chance.

U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to meet briefly with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris on Nov. 11, just weeks after announcing a misguided plan to scrap the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Unless Trump shifts gears, this could be the last chance to save INF — and nuclear arms control itself.

Public opposition to Trump’s INF announcement was swift and blunt. The European Union said, “The world doesn’t need a new arms race.” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said that he hoped that “we’re not moving down the path to undo much of the nuclear arms control treaties that we have put in place.” And President Reagan’s secretary of state, George Schultz, who negotiated INF, said, “Now is not the time to build larger arsenals of nuclear weapons.”

This is not idle hype. If the INF Treaty collapses, National Security Advisor John Bolton, an ardent foe of bipartisan arms control, would shift his sights to the 2010 New START Treaty. And if New START is not extended by 2021, its lapse would, for the first time in 50 years, leave U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals unconstrained by any verifiable limits. This would give Moscow free rein to build more nuclear weapons. The United States would respond in kind. A new nuclear arms race would ensue. The only winners in such a race would be defense contractors.

And it could get worse. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the historic deal that keeps The Bomb from spreading to yet more nations, is built on the premise that the U.S. and Russia will work to cut and eventually eliminate their arsenals. If that process now shifts into reverse, nations could begin to question their support for the NPT. The last thing we need is more states like North Korea seeking the bomb.

Related: This Army Missile Might be the Pentagon’s First Post-INF Weapon

Related: Four Perfectly Trump Reasons Why He Wants Out of the INF Treaty

Related: Nothing About Trashing the INFTreaty Makes the US Safer

We tend to forget that it was the United States that built the arms control framework—over decades, under Republican and Democratic presidents—because it serves our security interest to control the spread of nuclear weapons. We did not do this out of the good of our hearts. As Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told Congress last year, “bilateral, verifiable arms control agreements are essential to our ability to provide an effective deterrent.” A nuclear weapons free-for-all makes the world more dangerous and nuclear war more likely.

So, let’s not go back there. One nuclear arms race was one too many. The first step on the road to a saner future is to save the INF Treaty. Here’s how.

To start, the Trump administration needs to stop claiming that it has tried everything it can think of to get Russia back into compliance with INF. The day before Halloween, Defense Secretary James Mattis said, “We are doing everything we can to try to find any option. And if any of you have any good ideas please send me an email. It seems like every nut in America has my email address, I’m sure you can find it and send it to me.”

But, in reality, the United States has done very little to appeal to Moscow. True, Russia is reportedly in violation of INF, having deployed a prohibited cruise missile. However, Russia claims that U.S. missile interceptor deployments in Romania and Poland also violate the treaty by providing a base for U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a potential deal here, but it does not appear that the U.S. side has pursued it with Moscow.

And now the door to diplomacy may be closing. On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow is ready to discuss INF issues, “but as we understand it, the U.S. decision is final. It will be announced officially soon, and a six-month countdown will begin, after which the decision to terminate the [INF Treaty] will become a reality.”

President Trump should hold Bolton at bay and delay any decision on INF until he talks to Putin in Paris or later this month in Buenos Aires. There, Trump should offer to start the conversation on nuclear weapons that he and Putin discussed months ago in Helsinki. At that meeting, Trump said nuclear weapons are “the greatest threat of our world today,” and that “we have to do something about nuclear, and so that was a matter that we discussed actually in great detail, and President Putin agrees with me.” President Putin said Russia wanted to “work together…on the disarmament agenda,” including INF, New START, U.S. anti-missile systems, and weapons in space.

After they meet, the two nations should open a broad conversation about INF that takes into account both side’s concerns. They should extend New START and go beyond that to deeper arms reductions. If they do, they will inevitably bump into the issue of missile defense. Moscow still resents the Bush administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. It was that fateful and senseless act, also orchestrated by Bolton, that set Moscow on its current course to undermine INF.

Like President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev before them, Trump and Putin could use their next meetings to forge a new, transformative partnership on nuclear weapons. It is time to bring arms control back into the spotlight.

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