Nuclear nonproliferation provides a fundamental basis for stable foreign relations. Principles of disarmament should be upheld in our current world. “Nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation are not utopian ideals. They are critical to global peace and security,” former Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon said in a 2012 address.
President Donald Trump’s administration, however, destabilizes the consensus on nuclear nonproliferation. During an Oct. 20 campaign rally, Trump announced his intention to exit the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, specifically citing the treaty’s ineffectiveness and accusing Russia of repeated violations.
Almost 31 years ago, President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty. The treaty provided a basis for harmonious U.S.-Russian relations and helped diffuse the arms race: Washington reduced its supply of nuclear missiles by 846 missiles, and Moscow by 1,846.
The Trump administration would make a grave mistake in turning its back on such an effective means for alleviating nuclear tensions. Going forward, the Trump administration should extend its current policy of engagement with Russia so the two countries can work together diplomatically on arms control.
Exiting this Cold War treaty would be a misstep. U.S. withdrawal signals a renewed emphasis on the development and potential expansion of nuclear capabilities. This act contradicts principles of nuclear nonproliferation. The United States will lose legitimacy and credibility by eliminating its own barriers toward nuclear capability despite its own efforts to police North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear development.
The combination of provocative rhetoric and looser nuclear regulation leads to increased tension. In fact, on Oct. 21, the day after Trump’s announcement, the Russian Foreign Ministry labelled the United States’ withdrawal as “unacceptable” and “dangerous.”
Trump’s withdrawal also gives Russia justification to develop its nuclear and conventional land-based missiles. The historical precedent is very clear: After former President George W. Bush’s administration withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty on June 13, 2002, Russia withdrew from the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty the next day. Detente turned into defiance; Russia then developed its intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. Trump’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty will likely elicit a more aggressive, militarized response from Russia.
The United States and Russia wield disproportionate nuclear power, including 92 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, according to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Clearly, a potential arms race between Russia and the United States would drag other countries further into a bipolar world of provocations and conflicts.
Despite different policy objectives, the United States and Russia have worked together on arms control since the 1970s. The Cold War eventually ended with mutual cooperation on nuclear disarmament. Trump’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty marks a sharp deviation from that tradition, contradicting the long-standing U.S. principle of nonproliferation and undermining the basis for U.S.-Russian relations.
Trump’s relationship with Russia has taken a more trusting tone than that of his predecessors. He denounced the effectiveness of NATO and sided with Russia regarding its claim of noninterference in the 2016 election — ignoring the assertions of U.S. intelligence in the process. Exit from the INF Treaty signifies an aberration from Trump’s policies of engagement with Russia.
Rather than taking the extreme position of pulling out of the treaty, the Trump administration should use the framework of the INF Treaty to settle conflicts. The treaty contains an organizational structure known as the Special Verification Commission, which resolves noncompliance disputes and accusations. Both the United States and Russia can address their concerns about the other side’s noncompliance via the SVC.
In total, SVC has met 31 times. The most recent meeting took place in December 2017, when representatives from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and the United States met in Switzerland. Representatives from all five parties affirmed the importance of the INF Treaty in addressing nuclear nonproliferation, according to the U.S. Department of State’s report on the meeting. All delegations thrived to enhance international security through nuclear disarmament.
The SVC provides a great platform to multilaterally hold Russia accountable. Trump’s withdrawal not only undermines U.S. consistency on nuclear security but also forgoes a platform for the United States to address Russia’s concerns and potential noncompliance.
Nuclear weapons are fundamental threats to humanity. We should not live through a second Cold War in the 21st century.
Victoria Liu is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. Globetrotting From D.C. appears online every other Monday.