By Jonathan Power
If MAD was Mad then the decision of President Donald Trump to renounce the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is MADDER.
MAD is Mutually Assured Destruction, a concept which underlay the nuclear deterrence of the Cold War. Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan began the hard work of dismantling MAD with the INF, a treaty affecting the land-based missiles of Europe. It abolished missiles with a range of 500 to 2000 kilometres.
They were dangerous beyond their size (small relative to Inter-continental missiles), more dangerous in the sense that their flying time was a short ten minutes, which made pre-emptive action by Russia truly a possibility and nuclear war then a near certainty.
No wonder that the abrogation of the INF has been treated by dismay by many people inside the Pentagon and the State Department and among nuclear strategists in EU countries. In the forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs in an article entitled “Return to Doomsday” Sam Nunn, the former senator and nuclear expert together with Ernest Moritz, ex-energy secretary write, “Not since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis has the risk of a US-Russian confrontation involving the use of nuclear weapons been as high as it is today. Yet, unlike during the Cold War, both sides seem willfully blind to the peril.”
That’s a hell of an accusation to make. Measured against the confrontation of the Cold War era it seems over the top when the Russian people (as I have found over nearly 50 years of regular visits) are increasingly a peaceful, anti-nuclear, people. The West Europeans likewise. As for the Americans I would say the majority too. Yet on both sides resurrected Cold War warriors still have too much influence. They’re calling the shots.
Unfortunately, Nunn and Moniz are not exaggerating, despite the ideologies of the two sides being similar, unlike in the days of communism. For all the deficiencies of Russian political society and the authoritarianism of President Vladimir Putin, it’s a capitalist country and a Christian-inclined one too.
How anyone could have thought Trump is pro-Russian is to be wondered at. Russian interference may have been useful to Trump for getting him elected the first time round because Hilary Clinton would have been far harder on Russia. In the next general election, given that there will be no clone of Hillary Clinton running, it’s unlikely the Russians will work on behalf of Trump.
Let no one exonerate Putin. He has been provocative too. Even if the Americans were over-stating their case, he should have the flexibility to take a few blows on the chin. That’s what peace is all about – just what we try to practice in our domestic cultures. Tit for tat is for those who don’t understand the dynamics of peace-making.
This is not to say Putin doesn’t have some arguments on his side. Russia is once again being encircled. The deployment of the supposed anti-missile sites and radar in eastern Europe to “defend” Europe against Iranian missiles has the useful (to NATO countries) facility for being able to be turned in the Russian direction.
Moreover, the expansion of NATO, breaking the promises made to Gorbachev, has unnerved the Russians.
Even so, I would say that the Russian reaction is overstated. Even with the treaty, US and NATO submarines could sail close to Russia via the Baltic and the Black Sea loaded with nuclear weapons with missile travelling times of only three minutes. Thus, the INF debate is all a bit of strategic nonsense.
The experts say the Americans have another reason for their action – some say it’s the primary reason – to counter the rapid buildup of China’s intermediate range missiles. They could be aimed at Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and the US territory of Guam.
But the majority of these Chinese missiles have conventional warheads, not nuclear. The US and Russia possess more than 90% of global nuclear stockpiles.
Can Europe, caught in the middle of the Russian-American confrontation, do anything about it? President Emmanuel Macron of France said recently that “the main victim is the EU and its security”.
Fortunately, the Europeans can pull the teeth from the American mouth. They won’t allow, as they did in Cold War days, American missiles on their soil. The Europeans are more than happy that the INF resulted in the dismantling of 2,692 nuclear-tipped missiles – 1,846 by Russia and 846 by the US. They will block that achievement being overturned.
Moreover, the treaty included verification requirements that laid the groundwork for future arms reduction treaties involving intercontinental missiles. In 1986 there were 70,000 nuclear missiles. Today it’s less than 15,000.
Yet Trump appears not to want to build on that – to renew the treaty signed by presidents Barack Obama and Dimitri Medvedev that cut each sides’ intercontinental arsenal by a thousand each.
It is all MADness! There’re not enough voices ranged against it.
*Jonathan Power was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune. Copyright: Jonathan Power. Website www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com.