By early February, short of a spectacular diplomatic breakthrough, the Trump administration will make good on its threat to withdraw from the INF Treaty. Signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and concerned with “Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces,” it banned an entire class of missiles – those fired from the ground and flying between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. It thus promised a saner and somewhat safer world, especially for Germans, who during the Cold War feared being incinerated in a Soviet-American nuclear exchange. (“The shorter the range, the deader the Germans,” as Egon Bahr, a German geostrategist, once quipped.)
Unsurprisingly, Germans are thus aghast at Trump’s threat to rip up the treaty – in their view, the latest of many outrageous acts of sabotage of the so-called international order. In 2002, under George W. Bush, America already exited from another arms-control treaty. A third, the New Start Agreement, will expire in 2021 unless it is renewed. It is thus conceivable that the world will soon be back to the nightmare days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the nuclear powers wielded their arsenals with no contractual limitations whatsoever. And Trump would get much of the blame.
Not so fast. The world is indeed in great danger from nuclear weapons. But this is not primarily Trump’s fault. Nor would killing the INF Treaty automatically make the peril worse. It may even offer an opportunity to make the world better. Here is why.
First, Russia has been cheating on the INF Treaty. Who says so? First, the administration of Barack Obama did, then the Trump administration, and last month all of NATO. The Russians deny these charges. But they would, wouldn’t they? A treaty that is already breached is not worth saving.
Second, the INF Treaty said nothing about missiles launched from the air or sea, so that is where the threat would come from. Third, the INF Treaty only binds the US and Russia. It does not constrain China, which merrily builds just such missiles, and which the US and various of its Asian allies increasingly consider a bigger long-term threat than Russia. Nor does the treaty check the dozen or so other countries that have, or want, such arsenals, from reliable India and Israel to freakish North Korea or Iran.
The frightening truth is that the world long ago exited the stable horror of a dual-player game of “mutual assured destruction” (MAD) and entered the dystopia of a disorderly nuclear bazaar, with many players, possibly including lunatics. Hence the imperative for the major powers to come together in good faith to lift this curse on humanity.
Germany, as a middle power that this week took a seat on the UN Security Council, has a role to play in this. Having forsworn nukes, it can present itself as an honest broker for new talks among the big guys, which must at a minimum include America, China and Russia. It’s worth a try.