The Trump administration’s decision to pull out of a 1987 nuclear weapons treaty is just another step on the government’s path to escalate global war.
John Bolton, current White House National Security Advisor, speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Bolton has one of the most influential roles in shaping foreign policy under the Trump administration. Photo: Gage Skidmore, CC
Trump's recent decision to exit the 30-year-old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is going to change the face of global political engagement for a long time, and not for the better.
In the early days of the Cold War between the U.S. and Europe on one side and the Soviet bloc on the other, the nuclear weapons worry for the west was mostly about the Soviet Union’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and their nuclear warheads. The ICBMs were bulky, carried massive warheads capable of destroying and poisoning entire metropolitan areas, and were not as easily aimed with high accuracy.
The purported goal in escalating the number of nuclear weapons then was to create such a large stockpile that the other party in the battle would not dare launch theirs. With the nuclear warheads traveling across the globe from continent to continent, one side’s weapons would be detected in plenty of time for the other side to launch theirs as a counterattack.
That was terrifying enough, but by the late 1970s both the United States and the Soviet Union began actively developing shorter-range ballistic missiles.
On the U.S. side, that included early versions of its cruise missiles, which were famously designed to fly at high speed over low terrain to avoid detection by radar. Those same missiles also could continue to their target for shorter runs without further communications with their home base. They used sophisticated ground recognition systems to keep on track even without the modern global GPS system present today.
On the Soviet side, their shorter-range ballistic missiles also emphasized precision targeting over a limited flight path.
Both sides’ developments were more frightening because they were the first such missiles which were designed to travel mostly short distances with surgical precision. They would also reach their intended short-range targets so fast that it would be difficult for those on the other side to respond quickly enough.
The U.S. continued its escalation by developing better short-range nukes and positioning them in Western Europe, aimed at the Soviet Union. Moscow responded by putting their own short-range missiles just inside their borders and aimed at strategic European locations.
While that was happening, then President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev began holding talks that eventually produced the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Also known as the INF Treaty, that agreement dictated that both the United States and the Soviet Union had to completely eliminate all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310 to 3418 miles). That and a later treaty, the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty which focused on larger and longer-range nuclear weapons, were considered major reasons for why the nuclear arms race at least calmed down for a while.
Since that time there have been multiple accusations of the other party cheating on these agreements.
The U.S., with its eastern European missile-defense systems and continued cruise missile development programs, was arguably the first to breach the agreement, despite what Trump might claim. The U.S. has also placed missile defense facilities in Romania, which allegedly might include ground-to-ground intermediate range cruise missiles, again a direct violation of the treaty. The Russian side also says U.S. test launches of target vehicles, even if they do not include all the features of cruise missiles and do not have warheads attached, also constitute violations of the agreement.
The Russian Federation, which emerged as the ‘owner’ of the INF agreement after the fall of the Soviet Union, also likely broke the terms of the arrangements with a cruise missile equivalent of their own that was still banned under the INF.
Yet despite those claims and counterclaims, both countries fought to keep the agreement alive. In the fall of 2017, Trump’s team even laid out a plan to stay with the INF while working to force Russia back into compliance using a sanctions, diplomatic outreach, and secret backup plans for the U.S. development of prohibited weapons if the other approaches did not work.
Considering that Trump has been reluctant to use such sanctions even on other issues such as Russian disruption of the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, that part of the plan probably would not have happened. But what did happen is that the treaty stayed in place. Even this summer Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, publicly called the INF “probably the most successful treaty in [the] history of arms control”.
Behind the scenes were things Huntsman and those who prepared the 2017 plan might not have known, and they say far more about Trump’s true intent in these matters.
As insiders at Trump’s security meetings have noted even without disclosing confidential information, Donald Trump regularly asks his defense teams and security advisers as to what they might be able to do in each situation if they used nuclear warheads as part of the confrontation.
Trump also boasts publicly about his ability to use nukes with some pride. On January 2, 2018, for example, long before the handholding with Kim Jong-Un in Singapore, Trump issued a tweet responding to one from the North Korean leader saying that “Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times’. Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” (All punctuation and capitalization are directly from Trump.)
Trump has also been a numbers person with respect to weapons, arguing the “more is better” theory even when it comes to the deadliest of weaponry – as long as the U.S. has them first. He then pushed his team to come up with a plan that would allow just that – building the biggest, most up-to-date, and ‘baddest’ nuclear arsenal in the world.
On February 2, 2018, Trump released the Department of Defense’s 2018 “Nuclear Posture Review” to the public. In it his minions provide the bizarre argument (now being referred to as the Trump Doctrine) that, among other things, smaller nuclear weapons (such as might be carried on short-range missiles covered by the INF treaty provisions) offer greater deterrence by their presence. It backs that up with a strong recommendation to modernize its nuclear forces calling for replacement of “our nuclear ballistic missile submarines, strategic bombers, nuclear air-launched cruise missiles, ICBMs, and associated nuclear command and control”. It goes on to call for “modernizing our dual-capable fighter bombers with next generation F-35 fighter aircraft” and “recapitalization the nuclear weapons complex of laboratories and plants”. It also said that “Due to consistent underfunding, significant and sustained investments will be required over the coming decade to ensure that the National Nuclear Security Administration will be able to deliver the nuclear weapons at the needed rate to support the nuclear deterrent into the 2030s and beyond”.
The Nuclear Posture Review goes on to call for creation of two new generations of nuclear weapons including what were euphemistically called “low-yield nukes”, Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) (which get around the letter though not the spirit of the INF treaty), and the long-term development of Submarine Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCMs). The “low-yield nukes”, by the way, are “only” 20 kilotons or larger. This is the same size bomb that laid waste to Nagasaki and killed 70,000 people at the end of World War II.
The plan to embrace the Trump Doctrine is therefore not just to modernize but to set up the entire infrastructure to gear up everything from R&D to warhead development to rolling out both new missiles and advanced aircraft to carry them. It will also cost an estimated $50 billion per year over the next 20 years just to keep this part of the new Defense budget going.
To help Trump with his mission, he put former CIA Director Mike Pompeo in as the replacement for the previous more dovish Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Now he also has John Bolton, former Ambassador the United Nations under George as the far-more-hawkish replacement for former National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.
Bolton comes with a strong pedigree echoing Trump’s “America First!” policies especially as they relate to international warfare. He is a long-time opponent of international agreements of any kind on arms control, claiming they are at best impossible to enforce and at worse drastically impact U.S. options when considering military actions. He, like Trump, also resents the current agreements with Russia as they restrict America’s ability to respond to countries such as North Korea and China.
Among Bolton’s past recommendations include his push from outside the government in 2015 when he argued “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran” in a New York Times’ Op-Ed. With his new role, no INF, and full backing from Trump, he just might get what he asked for back in that piece.
In a recent interview about Trump’s position in pulling out of the INF Treaty, one of the negotiators for the U.S. on the INF Treaty during the Reagan administration said that although he would “love to believe that this is a very clever strategy to get leverage over the Russians”, and then perhaps renegotiate it with better terms, he does not believe that. He, like many , believes this is just another step by Trump and his team to exit agreements like the IRAN JCPOA (Joint Cooperative Plan of Action) nuclear non-proliferation agreement and his threatening to exit the World Trade Organization, so as to free the U.S. from any restrictions to do whatever they want, both militarily and economically.
Commenting after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, John Bolton made his position about the INF painfully clear. He said, “The American position is that Russia is in violation. The Russian position is that they are not in violation. So one has to ask how to ask the Russian to come back into compliance with something they don’t think they’re violating.”
President Vladimir Putin said something following those recent talks which may have actually even more accurately nailed the truth of what was really happening than anything coming from the U.S.
At a news conference after the meeting while still across from Bolton, Putin said, tongue firmly in cheek as he pondered the impass the two countries were at, “As far as I can remember, the U.S. seal depicts an eagle on one side and on the other side an olive branch with 13 olives. Here’s the question: Did your eagle already eat all the olives and only the arrows are left?”
Bolton shrugged. “Hopefully I’ll have some answers. But I didn’t bring any more olives.”
Putin responded, “That’s what I thought”.
The audience laughed. But with what that little interchange illustrated well, the world is far from laughing about what appears to be the beginning of a new global nuclear arms race.