Frankly, just about everything, and, as usual, it is complicated.
In addition to President Trump’s dismissive attitude towards Russian interference in the 2016 election, his ill-advised actions and statements with respect to arms control, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), international cooperation, science, the rule of law, and the norms of democratic governance have raised alarms not just in the U.S. but worldwide. Here the focus is only on what President Trump has done with two major arms control treaties that have underpinned the stand down from the Cold War, INF and NEW START.
The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was the arms control treaty signed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, marking the beginning of the end of the Cold War. This treaty was a major accomplishment of President Reagan, and helped set in motion the events that followed, leading to the end of the Cold War and even the end of the Soviet Union itself. The treaty was still in force when Donald Trump became President in January 2017. Then, President Trump announced on October 20, 2018 that the U.S. would withdraw from the treaty. On February 1, 2019 the U.S. formally suspended the treaty, starting a six-month clock until treaty withdrawal. In response, Russia also suspended the next day. The U.S. formally withdrew on August 2, 2019.
Many of the same arguments that were made in justifying U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty seventeen years earlier by President George W. Bush were made again this time. In particular, the Trump Administration charged that Russia was developing nuclear-capable ground-launched cruise missiles that have a range that is prohibited by the treaty. Russia countered this argument by claiming the treaty covered only ballistic missiles, not cruise missiles, and that expansion of NATO forces into eastern Europe was a threat to them. Instead of engaging the Russians in negotiating a new INF treaty that would take account of these more recent technological and political developments, President Trump decided instead to simply scuttle the treaty.
Every U. S. President since the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War has engaged the Russians in arms control negotiations, and several important treaty agreements have been signed. All of these treaties have been aimed at avoiding the apocalypse of nuclear war, which was always present as a possible endpoint of the Cold War conflict, and continues to be of concern. All Presidents, that is, until President Trump.
This is a particularly worrisome matter because the newest strategic arms control treaty, NEW START, a signature accomplishment of President Obama, expires in February 2021. Treaty provisions, however, allow a five-year extension. Russia has already indicated their interest in extending this treaty. President Trump has already claimed that this treaty is one of several “bad deals” President Obama negotiated, yet he has made no move to negotiate a better one. This is a worrisome development, because allowing the treaty to expire puts the world right back into an escalating and unstable nuclear arms race. It will ultimately be up to who is President in 2021 to either let the treaty expire or extend it to buy time to negotiate a new one. President Trump cannot be trusted to make the right judgement on this matter of paramount importance. Joe Biden can.
The choice in this election is clear. Nothing less is at stake than world peace.
Jeff Colvin has spent his professional career as a research physicist, first at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and then at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the two US nuclear weapons design laboratories. He lives in Gettysburg part-time and is chair of Gettysburg DFA Government Accountability task force.