The arms race has new legs

The arms race has new legs

The arms race has new legs
In this Dec. 8, 1987, file photo, President Ronald Reagan, right, shakes hands with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after the two leaders signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to eliminate intermediate-range missiles during a ceremony in the White House East Room in Washington. (AP)

Donald Trump was as good as his word. On Feb. 1, 2019, the US president formally suspended the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia. President Vladimir Putin reciprocated the following day. On Aug. 2, six months after the suspension, Trump formally withdrew the US from the treaty.

The INF treaty was signed by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987, and came into force in June 1988. It banned ground-launched missiles with a range of 500km to 5,500km kilometres, along with their launchers. By May 1991, 2,700 missiles had been eliminated, and 10 years of on-site compliance inspections followed. 

Trump said he withdrew from the treaty because Russia had broken it, in particular by deploying its 9M729 missile. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg broadly supports the US position and agreed that Russia had violated the INF, but he said NATO would react in a “measured way.”

The hawks in the Trump administration, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, strongly support the US withdrawal from the INF. Democrats criticised it.

Some arms control experts fear the end of the INF could be the dawn of a new arms race. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned about the loss of “an invaluable brake on nuclear war.” Indeed, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Saturday he was in favor of placing ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Asia “relatively soon.” The US is expected to test a ground-launched cruise missile within the next few weeks, and an intermediate-range ballistic missile in November.

Nobody can want a new nuclear arms race, which would heighten the danger of a war fought with such weapons and a catastrophic outcome for humanity.

Cornelia Meyer


Observers also fear that next on Trump’s agenda will be leaving the New START, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is the other pillar of the arms-control infrastructure. New START was signed by US President Barack Obama and Russian President Sergei Medvedev in 2010, came into force in 2011 and expires in 2021. It limits both countries to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 missiles and bombers. Democrats in Congress urged Trump to renew New START in 2021, but Putin said in June that Washington showed no interest in talks to extend the treaty. At the same time he predicted a “global catastrophe, if Washington keeps dismantling the global arms control regime.”

So much for those who own and control this formidable weaponry. It is true that Russia has violated the INF. The question is whether withdrawing from it rather than engaging in negotiation is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Many Europeans look at the US action with trepidation; they remember the nuclear threat from the Cold War, when Europe was the main theater for the deployment of short and intermediate range nuclear weapons, and its people feared destruction if NATO faced off against the Warsaw Pact on European soil and with nuclear arms. Nowhere was this more acutely felt than in Germany, divided by the Iron Curtain into the Federal Republic in the West and the Democratic Republic in the East. It is no surprise, then, that German politicians and others elsewhere in Western Europe are skeptical about the end of the INF, and would hate to see New START go the same way.

Trump is right to call Russia out on its violations of INF. He also has a point when he says China poses a nuclear threat in the Pacific. India, Pakistan and North Korea are nuclear powers too. It may therefore make sense to negotiate a broader framework to limit nuclear weapons, except that Trump dislikes multilateral negotiations and frameworks. He prefers bilateral bartering, which brings the US the strategic advantage reserved for the strong.

Nevertheless, nobody can want a new nuclear arms race, which would heighten the danger of a war fought with such weapons and a catastrophic outcome for humanity. May wiser counsel prevail, and persuade the powers-that-be back to the negotiating table. One must be allowed to dream.

  • Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources
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