President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from a major nuclear arms control agreement with Russia is emblematic of his approach to foreign affairs. He announced the move without consulting NATO allies, many of whom helped secure the treaty three decades ago and will be threatened by its demise. And like much of his “America First” foreign policy, the withdrawal offered a short-term fix to a long-term problem that ultimately will leave everyone, not least the United States, worse off.
Trump cited two reasons for his decision Saturday to pull the United States out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the historic agreement Ronald Reagan struck with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Russia had violated the treaty by testing and later deploying a ground-launched cruise missile that falls within the 500-5,500km range banned by the treaty. And China, which has deployed a large arsenal of midrange missiles, is not a party to the agreement.
Both concerns have merit. The Obama administration accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty in 2014 and sought without success to resolve the issue. And as the strategic competition with China heats up, Beijing’s growing arsenal of ground-based cruise missiles increasingly threatens U.S. naval forces in the Pacific region.
A strong response to these developments is warranted. But pulling out of the INF Treaty simply rewards Russia for cheating without increasing the prospects that Beijing will agree to limit its missile buildup. Once the treaty is dead, Moscow will be free to develop and deploy medium-range missiles without any constraint, threatening U.S. allies throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia. But Russian missiles targeted east and west can also be targeted south at China, likely leading Beijing to respond with more missiles of its own.
Of course, the United States would also be free to respond in kind. But it can already counter the threat of Russian medium-range missiles by deploying additional air- and sea-based missiles, which are not prohibited by the INF Treaty. New ground-based missiles would take nearly a decade to develop, and geography dictates that they would have to be deployed on the territory of allied nations in Europe and Asia.