John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, is in Moscow this week and reportedly plans to tell Vladimir Putin that, because of Russian cheating, the United States will withdraw from the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. Because Trump always disparages agreements reached by his predecessors, we might expect him to start tweeting that he’s saved America from yet another bad deal. But there’s a problem: the INF treaty may be the most one-sidedly good arms-control agreement any U.S. President has ever signed. And unless you start by recognizing this fact, you won’t make the right call about what to do next.
What made the INF treaty so good? It represented 100 percent Soviet acceptance of an American offer that almost no one in Washington thought could ever fly. Moscow agreed to scrap every single one of the new missiles, known as the SS-20, that it had been deploying for over a decade to intimidate European allies of the United States—plus all the missiles that the SS-20 was supposed to replace, plus any and all missiles of the same range deployed in Asia too. The Soviets accepted all this even though the U.S. counter-deployments that European allies had accepted on their territory were both less numerous and less powerful than the SS-20. Even more astoundingly, the INF treaty imposed no limits whatever on the main nuclear forces—both air- and sea-launched—on which the U.S. defense of Europe has rested ever since.
These one-sided terms do not mean, of course, that Russian violations of the treaty are unimportant. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have claimed that Moscow tested (and has now deployed) a cruise missile of illegal range. Even if information about these weapons is highly classified and therefore hard to discuss in public, and even if only a handful of them have actually been deployed, any U.S. President would feel obliged to respond. The crucial question is how.
One option—apparently Bolton’s preference—is to withdraw from the treaty and go forward with new U.S. deployments banned under INF. Another is to withdraw but stick to new missiles that the treaty allows (since no new INF-banned missiles will be ready for deployment for several years). A third would be to “suspend” the treaty in some way—declare that its terms no longer constrain us and prepare for withdrawal if Russia does not come into compliance. Finally, without either withdrawing from the treaty or suspending it, the United States could begin a build-up of the many weapon systems the INF treaty already allows.
There are surely things to be said for and against each of these options, and they should be debated fairly. What such a debate will make clear, however, is that only one option—the last one—both allows an increase in U.S. nuclear capabilities in and around Europe and keeps Russian capabilities under legal limits. Yes, Moscow will probably keep nibbling at the edges of the INF deal, but the only way it can launch a big buildup is by withdrawing from the treaty itself—something it clearly hesitates to do.
By contrast, the United States is free under the treaty to move forward with a robust program of new deployments, all the while generating a steady stream of public accusations about Russian duplicity. Moscow’s cheating means this is not a viable long-term solution, but for the foreseeable future, the one-sidedness of the INF treaty gives us the military and the moral high-ground at the same time. Unlike the Russians, we don’t have to cheat to come out on top.
The Trump Administration does have a second complaint about the INF treaty that some officials suggest is becoming even more important than Russian cheating. Because the treaty only applies to U.S. and Russian forces, it allows China—without any restrictions whatever—to deploy the very missiles that Reagan and Gorbachev forswore. That was okay when the Chinese were our Cold War confederates against the Soviets, but when they seek (as they now do) to limit the ability of the United States to defend its East Asian allies, the arrangement suddenly seems a lot less advantageous. No surprise, then, that American military planners have begun to view the INF treaty as one-sided in a new way—favoring China.
Military competition between the China and the United States will obviously be the Pentagon’s top priority in coming years. But the idea that this need decisively devalues the INF treaty seems—at the very least—premature. Even more than it does in Europe, the United States protects allies in the Western Pacific through its navy and air force—and that includes both air- and sea-launched nuclear systems. It’s not impossible to imagine that over time we and our allies will come to think that medium-range, ground-based missiles—the kind the INF treaty keeps us from having—would add meaningfully to deterrence of China. NATO came to that same conclusion about the Soviet Union in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. But this is not a near-term prospect. Today, in fact, virtually every U.S. ally in the region would reject the idea.
To embrace it, moreover, would involve a painful trade-off between the interests of America’s European allies and those of our friends in Asia. The United States may ultimately be driven to sacrifice a treaty that blocks a Russian nuclear buildup in Europe so as to be able to counter a Chinese nuclear buildup in Asia. But it would be foolish to do so when we still have so many ways of countering the latter and when the former has barely begun to take shape.
To date, the pushback against the Trump Administration’s handling of the INF treaty has come mainly from the professional arms-control community. Its spokesmen stress the value of “dialogue” and confidence building, of strategic “stability” and “win-win” solutions. None of this criticism is likely to have the slightest influence on John Bolton, who will treat it as so much peacenik hand-wringing. His view is that arms control agreements tie America’s hands and keep it from defending itself and its allies. He can make that ideological case if he wants to—and if he can find any agreements that prove him right. The INF Treaty is not one of them.