Valued commenter Gin & Tonic asked if I plan to write on the end of the INF Treaty. I hadn’t intended to – there’s an enormous amount of good commentary (Twitter threads here and here) on it – but as I thought about it, I have some thoughts beyond the standard commentary.
First, an overview of the situation.
The Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty was concluded between the US and the USSR in 1987. Both countries had been emplacing missiles in Europe in such a way as to dangerously shorten the warning time for a nuclear attack on Europe or Moscow. The treaty banned a whole class of missiles and largely ended the nuclear terrors of the early 1980s.
John Bolton despises arms control treaties. His rationale seems to be that the United States should give up no scrap of sovereignty for any reason whatsoever, and agreeing to limit nuclear weapons is an unjustified violation of sovereignty. Donald Trump has no idea of treaties, but if there are going to be treaties, they should only be the greatest treaties that only he could negotiate.
Russia has been violating the INF Treaty for several years now. In my opinion, the Obama administration should have tried harder to meet with Russia over the violations and resolve them. But they didn’t. All treaties have provisions for dealing with alleged violations, and the INF Treaty was no exception. But neither the Obama administration nor the Trump administration took that path.
In addition to Bolton’s hatred for treaties and Trump’s narcissism, others have suggested that China’s increasing military power justifies leaving the treaty so that the US can build missiles to use in a war against China. It’s hard for me to write that with a straight face. A US war with China is highly improbable, and that such missiles would be useful is moreso. That’s all I’ll say about that in this post.
And, of course, there is the influence of the defense industry and academic types who like to see yet another way to blow things up. So the treaty ended yesterday.
That’s the overview. The INF Treaty has some emotional overtones for me that I think have more general reverberations.
As the INF Treaty was developing, various parts of the government, particularly the military services, were looking at how to dispose of the Pershing II missiles that would be brought home. Treaties like this have massive implications for action and require coordination across the government, which is why Trump’s belief that all it takes is a handshake and some love letters between him and another head of state is so absurd.
At the same time, I was leading a program on a method of destroying hazardous wastes. The Air Force was interested in it for destroying the propellant in those missiles. So I had to learn about the treaty and how the military made contracts and lots of other things.
It was my introduction to arms control. At the same time, the Chemical Weapons Convention was coming into force, and they were interested in my program too. So I learned about chemical weapons.
Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan signed the INF Treaty. By 1987, there were demonstrations, ostensibly for environmental issues, in the Baltic States, where Gorbachev’s ideas on perestroika and glasnost would be used as a cover for development of political parties. The Soviet Union would be gone in four years.
One of the features of the INF Treaty was mutual inspections of the destruction of the missiles. Soviet inspectors came to the US, and American inspectors went to the USSR. This was more intrusive than earlier arms control treaties had been. Since then, mutual inspections are assumed as part of arms control. The next step would have been actual counting of warheads. But then Donald Trump was elected.
Those mutual inspections, and Gorbachev’s and Reagan’s willingness to open their nuclear weapons work up, even a little, also led in another direction.
Underground nuclear tests were still being done in the 1980s, and both sides wanted calibration data so they could measure the other’s tests more accurately. In the Joint Verification Experiment, Soviet team came to the Nevada Test Site to measure an American explosion with their instruments, and an American team took their instruments to the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site.
I was close organizationally to some of the participants in the Joint Verification Experiment, and they came back from Kazakhstan enthusiastic about working with their Soviet colleagues.
Treaties do more than regulate numbers of weapons. In order to verify a treaty – to be sure that the other side is doing what it says it will do – numbers are exchanged, and sites are visited. People from both sides get together in regular meetings. They work with and get to know each other and the other country. They get out of their bubbles.
A manager at the Hercules plant in Utah, where the Pershing II missiles were destroyed, told me a story about the Soviet inspectors who came to witness the destruction. He showed them around the city to orient them. They balked at the supermarket.
“Please show us where you actually buy groceries. This is obviously one of your show stores.”
“This is where we buy groceries.”
The inspectors learned something about America that they hadn’t known.
The trust built that way allowed the US nuclear weapons laboratory directors to be on a plane to Russia a little more than a month after the Soviet Union was dissolved, to work with their colleagues and bring a great many of us along eventually to help deal with the now-insecure state of the Soviet nuclear weapons enterprise.
And that cooperation went well too.
Vladimir Putin’s nationalism and kleptocracy, along with George W. Bush’s abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty (with Bolton’s help) ended much of the cooperation. A tiny bit of cooperation continues on securing nuclear materials, and I am sure that there are individual points of cooperation, although I haven’t heard much about them for some time.
What happens next? I think predictions of an arms race are overblown. The Russian missiles that violated the INF Treaty are real, but other weapons Putin has bragged about are in the future or nonexistent. (See nuclear-propelled cruise missile, for example.) The US Secretary of Defense has said that steps toward production of our cruise missiles will begin immediately, even if there is no mission for those missiles. (He didn’t say the last part, I did.)
The New START Treaty, which limits numbers of deployed (ready to go) nuclear weapons and provides for extensive data exchanges, expires in February 2021, with an option to extend for five more years. Since Russia and the US have not been negotiating it, extension is the only choice, and work on that needs to start yesterday. Since the US has been willing to take the mantle of withdrawing from the INF Treaty, Russia will feel it appropriate to tack on other issues, like sanctions, to any New START negotiations, which will make them more difficult. But we won’t know for sure until we negotiate. John Bolton would be happy to see New START go down the tubes too.
The worst part of what is happening is that connections that were built are being severed and new connections are not being built. We know less about Russia, and they know less about us. Fewer individuals have seen up close that folks on the other side are a lot like us.
Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner