Hofdi House, the site of the 1986 Reykjavik Summit, is a small, unassuming place — a more likely setting for a fairytale than a showdown between the two most powerful men in the world. It was in that little house, though, that Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev overcame decades of entrenched animosity and nearly agreed to eliminate all American and Soviet nuclear weapons. While a disarmament agreement never came about, both leaders used the momentum from that meeting to complete the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
The INF Treaty eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons, requiring its parties to destroy all ground-launched missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The significance of this achievement cannot be overstated. It was a diplomatic game-changer, creating the foundation for an arms control regime that rolled back massive nuclear stockpiles that threatened the entire globe.
Thirty-two years and eight days after the summit in Reykjavik, in an all too familiar mess of garbled talking points, citing Russia’s ongoing violation of the treaty, President Donald Trump stated his intention to withdraw from the agreement and potentially build a new generation of the missiles it prohibited.
He is right: the Russians are in violation of the INF Treaty, having produced, flight-tested, and deployed the Novator 9M729, a missile that is designed to travel within the restricted range. It was a reckless move by the Russians and one that they still deny. It is also part of a larger pattern of the Russians fraying the edges of international agreements to suit their needs. The Obama administration tried and failed to get Russia back into compliance, having been constrained by the sensitive nature of the violation and Russia’s refusal to acknowledge the very existence of the missile. Russia has also leveled its own charges about US compliance with the INF Treaty. The charges do not hold up to scrutiny, but they do represent obstacles to repairing the treaty.
In a small step forward, the Russians have stated that the 9M729 exists, but say that the system does not violate the INF Treaty. At least now, Washington and Moscow can deal in concrete terms. Unfortunately only one formal strategic stability dialogue has taken place between the countries since President Trump took office, hardly demonstrating a deep-seated commitment to finding a solution.
National Security Advisor John Bolton has wanted to get out of the INF Treaty since before the violation was ever made public.
Abandoning the INF Treaty without exhausting any and all possible solutions is a dereliction of duty. Given the past precedent of this administration, it’s also very doubtful that they fully informed all of our European allies of this decision before the President’s shamefully casual comments to the press, despite them being most at risk from the treaty’s collapse.
The most alarming part of President Trump’s comments was his suggestion that the onus was on Russia and China to “come to us” if we are all to avoid a new nuclear arms race and that we have “a tremendous amount of money to play with our military.” The first statement abdicates historical US leadership on the most dangerous threat facing this world. The second is a misunderstanding of our budget at best and an outright lie, at worst. We don’t have the money to fund an arms race, nor do we need intermediate-range ground-launched missiles to protect our vital interests. We also have air- and sea-launched capabilities that have and will get the job done. It is also odd that President Trump, who has spent so much time telling the world of his incomparable negotiating skills, has failed to make any progress on this challenge.
In the end, the Russian violation may just be the excuse for which the opponents of the treaty have been looking. National Security Advisor John Bolton has wanted to get out of the INF Treaty since before the violation was ever made public. His 2011 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, complete with a sexist opening line, called for the destruction of the treaty on grounds unrelated to any compliance issues. Bolton has been present at the destruction of other treaties and agreements, including the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the 1994 Agreed Framework, and the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. It is quite reasonable to believe that other nuclear agreements, like the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, could be next.
A formal notification to withdraw from the INF Treaty has yet to be delivered to the Russians. Upon such a notification, the United States must wait six months before it can actually leave the agreement. That leaves time to correct this disastrous mistake. Congress and our allies need to demand that this administration try every possible diplomatic option to get Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty before taking any other action. They must press their counterparts to answer why the world would be safer with Russia completely unconstrained to produce these destabilizing missiles. Our allies also need to make it clear to Moscow that if the INF Treaty does collapse, it will be held accountable.
So much progress has been made to reduce nuclear threats over the past three decades. Abandoning the agreements that enabled that progress will only serve to ignite a new era of nuclear arms racing. While Presidents Trump and Vladimir Putin have not demonstrated the kind of commitment to arms control that Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev did, they still have a chance to preserve the treaty their predecessors created. Perhaps it is time to make another visit to Hofdi House.