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The Trump Administration’s INF Treaty Blunder

John Bolton (Gage Skidmore/Flikr)

Jacob Heilbrunn interviewed Richard Burt, former U.S. ambassador to Germany, on the Trump administration’s decision to quit the INF Treaty. Burt expresses his bewilderment at Trump’s decision:

But I think the political leadership still likes the idea of U.S.-Russia arms control because it provides the sense that the Russians are a coequal superpower and gives them a certain amount of status. But by and large, this was the one arms control treaty you could point to that clearly favored American interests as opposed to Russian interests. So it’s bizarre that President Trump and John Bolton have sabotaged it [bold mine-DL].

Stephen Sestanovich made a similar point in his criticism of the administration’s decision: “the INF treaty may be the most one-sidedly good arms-control agreement any U.S. President has ever signed.” The trouble is that Trump is incapable of acknowledging that any existing international agreements are good for the U.S., and Bolton is ideologically hostile to any and all arms control agreements because he sees them as unacceptable constraints on U.S. power. No matter how “one-sidedly good” an agreement is for the U.S., Trump will always see any agreement made before he became president as a horrible sell-out that needs to be repudiated. That isn’t because he understands the first thing about what the agreement does or fails to do, but simply because his hard-line advisers tell him that the deal is rotten and he is inclined to believe them.

Bolton is happy to use Russian violations as a pretext for scrapping the treaty, because he has never supported it and has wanted to do away with it for a long time. Trump has no interest in the merits of the treaty, just as he doesn’t care about the merits of any of the agreements that he throws in the trash. He just wants to be seen as doing away with supposedly “bad” deals without even attempting to replace them with anything. It flatters Trump for him to think that all of his predecessors were fools who gave away too much, and it suits Bolton to encourage him in tearing up one agreement after another that Bolton hates because the agreements work as intended. Because of the president’s ignorant vanity and Bolton’s ideological extremism, no agreement is safe. It is typical that Trump withdraws from the agreements that are the most favorable to the U.S. He is not judging these agreements according to what they do for the country over the long term, but thinks only of how canceling them will help him in the short term politically.

Withdrawing from the INF Treaty is a costly, unnecessary, and misguided move that gains the U.S. so little that it isn’t worth doing. John Glaser and Eric Gomez conclude their recent article by saying this:

The INF Treaty is simply a low cost way to discourage an arms race and maintain a cooperative relationship on such issues with Russia. Terminating it is short-sighted and will come with serious costs.

There is consensus across the spectrum that quitting the treaty is a gift to Russia, gains the U.S. nothing, and makes the world a much more dangerous place than it was. There is a tendency to portray ripping up Cold War-era arms control treaties as being “tough” on Russia, but that’s simply wrong. It does not harm Russia to free them from the constraints that their military resents. It does not make America more secure to remove the restrictions that have limited the kinds of weapons Russia can deploy.

Congress doesn’t have to take Trump’s bad decision lying down. On the main page, Bruce Fein urges the Senate to challenge Trump over withdrawal from the treaty, and suggests that Congress use the power of the purse to prevent the administration from building new weapons that would violate the treaty:

Congress will be required to take up a new spending measure for several government departments and agencies whose appropriations expire on December 7. That would be a wonderful opportunity for our elected representatives to display a little backbone by prohibiting any expenditure of funds that would run afoul of the INF treaty, a landmark nuclear arms agreement that is as much to be marveled at as imitated.

No Americans interests are served by tearing up this treaty, and by withdrawing from it the Trump administration will be throwing away one of the most advantageous treaties for the United States of the last half-century. Trump doesn’t understand the implications of exiting the treaty, but Bolton knows exactly what he’s doing and has once again been able to manipulate Trump into doing just what he wants.

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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