NEW YORK - No one should be surprised that U.S. President Donald Trump has made good on his threat to begin withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. More surprising is the reaction from some leading Democrats.
It was always a long shot that the administration would succeed in negotiations, begun in December, to get Russia to destroy the missiles they illegally fielded under the treaty. And top administration officials such as National Security Adviser John Bolton have never been big fans of arms control.
Some Democrats, meanwhile, were quick to express their concern. Adam Schiff of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that the withdrawal “risks precisely the sort of nuclear arms buildup that the treaty was designed to guard against.” Chris Coons of Delaware, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that withdrawal “without a clear plan for bringing Russia back into compliance will lead to a new arms race and endanger the people of the United States and Europe.” Both men, to be fair, also acknowledged that Russia has violated the treaty.
If these Democrats were members of the Trump administration, they might face accusations that they were Russian stooges. After all, they are defending a 1987 arms control treaty that was a wonderful deal for Russia. Until now, America has adhered to the terms of the deal and not developed intermediate-range nuclear missiles, nor has it deployed any to threaten Russian cities.
The Russians, in contrast, have been cheating for more than a decade. In 2008, they began testing a ground-based cruise missile system. In 2017, the U.S. government acknowledged that Russia had deployed what is known as the “9M729 missile” against NATO positions in Europe.
For nearly a decade, the U.S. government tried a number of tactics to get the Russians to meet their treaty obligations. U.S. officials tried negotiations. They tried public shaming. In December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo persuaded NATO to formally declare Russia as in breach of the treaty. None of it worked. So the U.S. will now try a different approach. As Pompeo said on Friday: “Russia has jeopardized the United States security interest, and we can no longer be restricted by the treaty while Russia shamelessly violates it.”
The Pentagon will now move forward with the development of intermediate-range missiles to be deployed to counter both Russia and China, a country that never was a party to the treaty in the first place. That’s important because China has developed its own missile fleet — one that, were the Chinese a party to the INF treaty, would put them in violation of it.
All of which provides some context to the objections of Democrats. It’s fair to worry about a new nuclear arms race between the U.S., Russia and China. The problem is that the race is already on — and the U.S. is not running. Neither public pressure nor diplomatic negotiation has dissuaded these adversaries from their proliferation. Perhaps a U.S. arms buildup will.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.