Home/Daniel Larison/Arms Control Treaties and Trump’s Disdain for Diplomacy

Arms Control Treaties and Trump’s Disdain for Diplomacy

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, President Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton at the NATO Foreign Ministerial in Brussels, Belgium on July 12, 2018. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Alexandra Bell criticizes the decision to leave the INF Treaty:

Decades worth of arms agreements between Washington and Moscow have stabilized the risk of nuclear war. They have not always worked the way that we wanted them to, but they have included inspections mechanisms, data exchanges and regular consultations that helped us to understand each other’s strategic nuclear forces. That kind of oversight provides predictability and without it, we may blindly stumble into an unnecessary nuclear buildup. That’s why any decision to withdraw from an arms agreement should be balanced against potential consequences and how those consequences affect national security.

Bell is right that no agreement will ever be perfectly satisfactory. Any agreement that all sides are willing to make inevitably requires compromise, and that means that no party to the agreement ever gets everything that it wants. Unfortunately, Bolton and Trump aren’t interested in judging these agreements on the merits of what they do, but instead look for excuses to exit agreements that one or both of them never supported in the first place. In the case of the INF Treaty, they can point to Russian violations as their excuse to quit, but it is an excuse and not the real reason. As we can see with the decision to renege on the JCPOA, it makes no difference to them whether the other side complies with the agreement or not. The IAEA has found Iran to be in compliance with the nuclear deal eleven consecutive times, but Trump violated the deal anyway. If the other government abides by an agreement, hard-liners will declare that the agreement was too weak or favorable to them in the first place. If the other side is caught violating it, they will take their ball and go home because they never wanted the agreement to start with. When an administration is full of people this ignorant and instinctively hostile to diplomacy, any agreement that stops short of forcing the other side’s surrender could become a target for elimination. Trump’s disdain for diplomacy and Bolton’s hostility to arms control have combined to dynamite some of the most successful treaties and agreements in recent decades, and it won’t stop here.

Abandoning an arms control treaty because there has been a violation by the other side is akin to choosing to forfeit a game because the other side tried to cheat once. That’ll show ’em! It stupidly rewards the cheater, it gains your side nothing, and it allows the other side to pin the blame squarely on you for the collapse of the treaty. It isn’t a rational response to a manageable problem. It is the knee-jerk response of an ideologue who has been looking for an opportunity to get rid of the treaty all along. Of course, when nuclear weapons are involved the stakes are far greater than with most other agreements. As John McLaughlin explains, it is also a very dangerous response:

The likely consequence of killing this treaty is that Russia will build more nukes and so will we. There are about 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world and tons of explosive nuclear material; no one needs more.

The only reason to quit an arms control treaty is to build the weapons that it prohibits or limits, and so quitting the treaty means that the U.S. is going to fritter away untold billions of dollars on more nuclear weapons it doesn’t need because Bolton is still settling scores against arms control advocates from thirty years ago.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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