A Nuclear Middle Finger

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Mar 28, 4:00 PM |

By Peter Schechter

It’s a bad time for arms control and for global stability. In a world threatened by nuclear capable countries like North Korea and Iran, the implications of the end of nuclear cooperation between Washington and Moscow extend far beyond bilateral arms control.

For thirty years, there was at least the semblance of cooperation between the world’s two biggest nuclear superpowers.  Now, the curtains are closing on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and Russia. President Trump, with support from National Security Advisor John Bolton, has pulled America out from the treaty.

It’s a classic piece of Trump theater — a nuclear middle finger to the world.  One that threatens to unleash greater nuclear proliferation around the globe. Although Russia regularly violated the INF treaty, U.S withdrawal may have given Vladimir Putin exactly what he wanted.

Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, and a global expert on arms control issues, joins Altamar to dive deeper into the consequences of Trump’s decision.

“It is certainly a huge benefit to the Russians,” Lewis contends. “The Russians were violating the treaty, and there are two ways [the U.S.] can play a violation. You can use it to build support within NATO for much stronger actions… or you can take your ball and go home, in which case all of the Russian programs magically become legal.”

Lewis is not surprised by President Trump’s move. “The reality is that Russia has been violating the treaty, or at the very least the United States says Russia has been violating the treaty, and I frankly think the evidence for that is pretty good,” he says. And he points to the oversized influence John Bolton had in making the decision. “John Bolton is really opposed to negotiated agreements with other countries. He finds them to be an affront to American sovereignty. I think he really hates treaties.”

The INF was left over from Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s compromise-oriented leadership. With Putin in the Kremlin, Lewis posits that we’re seeing “this kind of resurgence of Soviet-era ideas about nuclear weapons and defense.”

A new arms race would have a dramatic effect on nuclear hotspots worldwide. Europe will be left uneasy as action ratchets up on both sides. Moreover, the INF withdrawal in tandem with the collapse of the Trump-Kim Vietnam summit diminishes any hope for a denuclearized Korea. “This is absolutely a step in the direction of no [arms] restraints at all,” says Lewis.

“We’re getting back into this 1980’s-like situation…where we have a tense relationship with Russia, nuclear weapons are a part of that tense relationship, and now we’re going to have a bunch of systems in place that drastically reduce decision time,” says Lewis. “And if there is one thing we know about decision makers, it’s that the less time they have, the worse decisions they make.”

Lewis offers a glimmer of hope amid these concerning developments. “Across the world, we do have cooperative strategies to create win-win solutions for our security. It just takes a little bit of effort and a little bit of courage.” As he points out, choosing better leaders is one way to reach a better outcome. “We often have this discussion about how the President of the United States has unilateral and unconstrained authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. He doesn’t require a second vote. People are always saying there should be a safeguard — and the safeguard was the election. That’s the safeguard and the situation we’re in is, if countries make better choices than they’re making now, then the world is going to get better.”

Listen now to Altamar’s analysis of the repercussions of the United States’ INF withdrawal – available for download here.



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About the Hosts

Peter Schechter works in both politics and policy. He served as the Atlantic Council’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives and previously co-founded a premier strategic communications company, working as a political campaign advisor in more than 20 countries.  Muni Jensen is a former Colombian diplomat, columnist, and television political commentator.