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Tearing Up a Treaty — or Not

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 23, 2018

Almost casually, President Donald Trump announced on an airport runway over the weekend that the US is pulling out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia.

“Russia has violated the agreement. They’ve been violating it for many years,” Trump told reporters before boarding Air Force One to leave Nevada following a campaign rally. “I don’t know why President Obama didn’t negotiate or pull out. And we’re not going to let them violate a nuclear agreement and go out and do weapons and we’re not allowed to. We’re the ones that have stayed in the agreement and we’ve honored the agreement,” said the president.

“But Russia has not, unfortunately, honored the agreement. So, we’re going to terminate the agreement. We’re gonna pull out,” he said of the agreement that was signed by former President Ronald Reagan and former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to discuss the decision with US national security adviser John Bolton in Russia this week. Just why not, or why the announcement came while boarding an airplane, or why the president didn’t just send Bolton first and then make the announcement when he knew the Russian response is all unclear. Stage master always seems to be a better role for this president than achievement.

A key problem here, however, is that the president may not have the authority to eliminate a Senate-passed treaty without returning to Congress first. The Consitution gives the Senate the power to ratify treaties, and is silent as to who can call them off.

So, once again, we have an interesting foreign policy question hanging because this president goes by his gut, without checking on the details first.

And Congress is less than enthused about the announced withdrawal.

In reaction to the announced withdrawal, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn, the chair of the Senate foreign relations committee said he hoped it was “just a move” to achieve a new deal, in the way the president threatened then renegotiated the NAFTA trade agreement. Corker said other agreements, including the so-called newStart treaty which governs storage of discarded weapons, may be at risk as well.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, told Fox News on Sunday it would be “a big, big mistake to flippantly get out of this historic agreement.”

Apparently the real reason for calling for elimination of the treaty is because China is not a signer; China has gone ahead without restraint to develop such intermediate-range weapons for use in the South Pacific, while the United States is operating under constraints.

One reading here is that as with NAFTA or trade agreements, a belligerent U.S. president is calling out an existing treaty as inadequate hoping to stimulate changes to re-ratify it later. The treaty forced both the United States and Russie to eliminate ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between approximately 300 and 3,400 miles. It offered protection to European allies and marked a watershed agreement during the Cold War.

The Trump Administration has said repeatedly that Russia has violated the treaty and has pointed to their predecessors in the Obama administration who accused Russia of violating the terms of the agreement. In 2014, CNN reported that the United Statese had accused Russia of violating the treaty, citing cruise missile tests that dated to 2008.

However, it wasn’t until recently that NATO officially confirmed Russia’s activity constituted a likely violation.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier this month that the military alliance remained “concerned about Russia’s lack of respect for its international commitments,” citing various recent tests of mobile missile weapons.

In its most recent Nuclear Posture Review, the Defense Department which said Russia “continues to violate a series of arms control treaties and commitments.”

Pulling out of the treaty could provoke an arms race across Europe akin to the one that was occurring when the agreement was initially signed in the 1980s.

Importantly, however, Trump administration officials believe the treaty has put the U.S. is at a disadvantage because China does not face any constraints on developing intermediate-range nuclear missiles in the Pacific.

Actually, it could serve the interests of both Americans and Russians to adjust the treaty to include China. Exactly what would motivate China in this is unclear, but this path represents a good way to get out of a new problem that the president is creating.

The United States and Russia together destroyed about 2,700 such weapons — weapons whose reach is short of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile — by the deadline in 1991.

In an opinion piece in May, 2018, for Think, an NBC News presentation, former Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin argued that “Unfortunately, due to decades of executive aggrandizement and congressional acquiescence — coupled with judicial timidity — the ability to unilaterally withdraw the United States from every last treaty the Senate has ever ratified has been left solely in the hands of President Donald Trump.”

In any event, watch this space. Congress is not ready to rubber stamp this move.


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