Donald Trump's plan to rip up the anti-ballistic missile treaty with the Soviet Union may not be as disastrous as we think

East-west relations now may be fraught once again, but the contrast between then and now – not least in Europe – is one reason why the INF treaty may indeed be reaching the end of its useful life

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 25 October 2018 18:04 BST
Trump often announce something with great fanfare that appears quite shocking, but is actually more of an opening bid than an actual policy
Trump often announce something with great fanfare that appears quite shocking, but is actually more of an opening bid than an actual policy

When Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, confirmed that the United States intended to leave the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) treaty with the Soviet Union, the response ran the gamut from disappointment to panic. And while warnings of imminent Armageddon have dissipated, an early consensus seems to have settled around fears about the start of a highly dangerous new arms race.

There are reasons, though, why even this may not be exactly what we are dealing with here. Weigh, first, the considerations that Trump’s advisers may have presented (in the event that their advice was solicited) about when and whether to announce his intention to dismantle what has been seen for three decades as a main pillar of European security.

First, it is not news that Russia has been deploying missiles with a banned range at their test site for the best part of three years. Moscow has not even really bothered to deny it.

But it was not something at the forefront of attention: the Americans were otherwise engaged, and the Europeans – whose security stood to be most immediately affected – typically preferred to raise the matter behind closed doors. Anyway, Nato has been building up its troop presence in Europe again, in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, so it was not as if European defence was being neglected.

But the manner and timing of the announcement could hardly have been bettered from a US political and diplomatic point of view. The US could argue, as it did, that it was all Russia’s fault that the treaty was being ripped up. Nor was it coincidence that the announcement was made as Bolton – hawk-in-chief at Trump’s court – was on his way to see his Russian counterpart and President Putin in Moscow. Nor was it just a routine visit. Part of the purpose was to prepare for another Trump-Putin meeting, following the contentious July summit in Helsinki.

Given the still-toxic atmosphere in Washington about Russia in general, and the virulent criticism from the US political establishment of Trump’s handling of the Helsinki talks, the idea that a new one-on-one meeting was on the cards needed careful presentation. The looming midterm Congressional elections – now only two weeks away – were a still more immediate complication. A fierce announcement about withdrawing from a longstanding arms treaty, with accusations of Russian misbehaviour, offered the ideal cover. What is more, Russia would understand that the price of a new meeting – in the framework of the Armistice centenary commemorations in Paris – would have to include a sop to American public opinion, and might therefore temper its indignation – which it has.

The trouble is that, not for the first time, the Trump administration seems to have proceeded from purely domestic and bilateral calculations, which left one party with a significant interest in the INF treaty completely out of account. The announcement that the days of the INF treaty were now numbered seems to have taken the Europeans completely by surprise.

Here in the UK, this prompted an urgent question in the House of Commons on Thursday, to which the Foreign Office minister, Mark Field, responded with a reply that placed the UK firmly in the European camp. Appealing to Russia to return to full compliance, he said this was a treaty “to which we the UK and all of our allies in Europe remain fully committed”, potentially opening up another major policy breach with the United States, following Trump’s rejection of the Iran nuclear agreement.

And for the Europeans, it can be argued that the INF treaty is not just another arms treaty. Signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, it can be seen in retrospect as the first big move towards the end of the Cold War. Banning a whole class of ground-launched medium-range nuclear missiles that had been developed primarily for use in the European theatre, it had the effect of enhancing European security practically overnight. What is more, this is a treaty that had remained intact, until Russia’s recent violation, right through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the enlargement of Nato to the east. It is entirely understandable that the Europeans would prefer it to remain in place, with Russia coaxed into renewed compliance.

And yet… I have to admit that when I first heard the news that Trump was threatening to withdraw the US from the treaty and when this was then confirmed by Bolton, my thoughts turned less to a riskier future for European security than to the past. The time when Reagan and Gorbachev reached the INF agreement just seemed so very long ago, not just in years – it was 18 months in the negotiation and signed in 1987 – but in terms of the whole context. This was a time when the Soviet Union had begun to fail, and the danger it presented was as much in its weakness as in its strength. It was a time when there was new ferment spreading across central and Eastern Europe – and in the Soviet Union itself –precipitated by Gorbachev’s reforms. But it was a time, too, when east-west tensions in Europe were at a level barely conceivable today – when there was a real question as to whether Moscow would send tanks into Poland, or Czechoslovakia or even East Germany; when previously impervious borders were starting to fray, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall. These were exhilarating times, yes, but perilous, too.

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East-west relations now may be fraught once again – what with the simmering war in Ukraine, charges of Russian election interference and the Salisbury poisonings. But the contrast between then and now – not least in Europe – is one reason why the INF treaty may indeed be reaching the end of its useful life.

It can be argued that what marked the beginning of the end of Cold War-era arms control was when the US unilaterally abrogated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow for development of Reagan’s dreamt-of “star wars”. That was in 2002 under George W Bush, and caused far more alarm in Moscow than the demise of the INF treaty has done, or is likely to do, as it capitalised on a US advantage. Now, like the US, Russia seems to be moving on from the nuclear age, looking to new, and “smarter”, defences.

Such reasoning, however, may be premature. We know, or at least we should know by now, that Trump has a particular way of operating. It is to announce something with great fanfare that appears quite shocking, but is actually more of an opening bid than an actual policy. So, while the INF treaty – and with it, Cold War arms control generally – may indeed be on the way out, the decision is not as definitive as it might look. Trump and Putin now have at least one firm item for their Paris agenda, while the Europeans have time to consider a more imaginative response to their security than just clinging to the past.

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