Thirty years after its ratification, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Citing violations by Russia, the Trump Administration is walking away from a treaty that has been an essential element of the international nonproliferation and arms control framework.
The real target of the Trump administration's move may be China, but the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty will certainly have major destabilizing impacts in Europe, Asia, and beyond.
The risks of a new arms race are real, but this move by the Trump administration will also engender another subset of issues related to alliances and trust. The unilateral announcement by the United States was, unsurprisingly, met by puzzlement from NATO allies. With the demise of the INF, a potential U.S. deployment of missiles in the European theater will certainly spark major protests and opposition -- a vivid flashback to the early 1980s. Moreover, although Europe is generally not keen on becoming the arena for a new ground-based intermediate-range missile arms race, the tangible nuances in how each ally responded to the U.S. announcement also highlight the risk of deepening divides within NATO itself, providing Russia further opportunities to weaken this alliance.
Furthermore, if the Trump administration's threats to terminate the INF treaty did not prompt Russia to address its serious compliance issues, the actual U.S. withdrawal after the announced grace period will still not resolve them. In fact, the pullout will also undermine talks between the United States and Russia for the renewal of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as the New START, signed in 2010. The New START, which limits strategic nuclear weapons and is the other pillar in the global arms control framework, will expire in February 2021. In their first phone call after Trump took office, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the possibility of extending the New START. After pausing to ask his aides what the treaty was, President Trump strongly denounced it, calling it "one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration."
This impulsive rhetoric, in turn, sets the tone for the upcoming 2020 Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference. The long-standing challenge of reducing the gap between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear ones has now become even more difficult to overcome.
Lastly, going beyond nuclear issues, a recurring problem of the Trump administration should be emphasized: miscommunication with allies. Before the announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the INF, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis had assured allies at a meeting of NATO defense ministers that any decision by the United States would be made "in concert with our allies, as always." Not only did that consultation not happen, but Mattis resigned last December citing a clash with President Trump's worldviews. With the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight for the second year in a row -- the last time it was this close to midnight was in 1953 -- the Trump administration has embarked upon a very dangerous path. We can only hope that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe follows in Yasuhiro Nakasone's footsteps and successfully convinces President Trump to reopen negotiations with Russia, and proposes a way to bring China to the arms control table as soon as possible.
(Dr. Sayuri Romei is the fellow for security and foreign affairs at Sasakawa USA, an affiliate think tank of Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. Prior to joining Sasakawa USA, Dr. Romei spent a year at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation as a MacArthur nuclear security pre-doctoral fellow. Her doctoral work focuses on Japan's nuclear hedging posture and examines how the country started and maintained such stance throughout the postwar era.)