Europe has had its work cut out recently, trying to defend treaties that President Trump is on a mission to destroy. This summer he ended US participation in the landmark nuclear deal with Iran and began reimposing sanctions. Since US withdrawal, the other signatories have been working strenuously to keep the Agreement in place, recognising the danger of wider nuclear proliferation in the Middle East if it collapses.
Now the EU’s senior diplomat, Federica Mogherini, who negotiated the Iran deal, is trying to save the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) – the latest piece of international law under attack from the Trump White House. The INF is a vital nuclear treaty which ensured the destruction of nearly 2,700 short- and medium-range missiles in the latter years of the Cold War. Scrapping the INF opens the door to the return of these missiles which – as we understood in the 1980s – raises the possibility of a superpower nuclear war in Europe.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has declared Russia in material breach of the Treaty and has given an ultimatum to the Russian government – comply within 60 days or the US will withdraw. NATO foreign ministers have now waded in, declaring that Russia has developed a system that violates the INF. ‘It is now up to Russia’, they say, ‘to preserve the INF Treaty’.
The European Union has taken a more nuanced position, declaring that the United States should ‘consider the consequences of its possible withdrawal from the INF on its own security, on the security of its allies and of the whole world.’ Mogherini has urged both Russia and the US to save the treaty, stating that ‘The INF has guaranteed peace and security in European territory for 30 years’, and warning that Europe does not want to become a battlefield for global powers once again, as it had been during the Cold War.
But will Trump listen? Reportedly, the 60 days breather was a concession to Angela Merkel, following her meeting with Trump at the G20, but there can only be movement during this time if the US is willing to engage in talks with Russia – and these have been at a minimum during the Trump presidency. If non-compliance is a serious concern, then as Daryl Kimball from the US Arms Control Association states, ‘The focus should be on negotiating a solution that addresses U.S. and NATO concerns about Russia’s noncompliant 9M729 missile and addresses Russia concerns about, in particular, U.S. Mk-41 Aegis Ashore missile-interceptor launchers in Romania (and by 2020 in Poland) that could be used for offensive missiles.’
Serious commentators have pointed out that both sides have compliance concerns to raise and all concerns should be addressed. The danger is that Trump is not really interested in resolving the matter and retaining the INF Treaty: that he intends to redevelop and reintroduce intermediate-range missiles, come what may. When questioned on Trump’s action, President Putin observed that Trump had earmarked R and D funding for these missiles – that they are in the Pentagon budget – even before announcing withdrawal from the Treaty. The ultimatum, he suggests, smacks of post hoc justification and he makes it clear that although he opposes the destruction of the Treaty, if that happens, he will ‘react accordingly’.
This is not good news, particularly in an increasingly fraught world facing catastrophic problems like climate change, the solution of which requires major powers to work together, not ratchet up the threat levels.
The international community must now lend its weight to the pleas from Europe – that the INF must be saved. For it may be Europe that will host the missiles once again, and bear the military brunt, but the problems they bring will spill over and destabilise far beyond the continent. The UK has a crucial role to play in this: whatever special relationship exists with the US must now be utilised – to save the INF Treaty and prevent a disastrous descent into a new nuclear arms race based in Europe.