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Nuclear arms control is going down a Trumpian hole.

Reacting to the radio interview by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to mark Armistice Day, in which he was reported as saying, “We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America… We need a true European army”, President Donald Trump blew a fuse. He tweeted: “President Macron of France has just suggested that Europe build its own military in order to protect itself from the U.S., China and Russia. Very insulting.”

In fact Trump’s reaction was based on reading a false report of what Macron said. In that part of the interview he was talking about cyber attacks. Nevertheless, Macron was indeed angrily critical of Trump: “When I see President Trump announcing that he’s quitting a major disarmament treaty which was formed after the 1980s Euro-missile crisis that hit Europe, who is the main victim? Europe and its security”.

The treaty is the so-called I.N.F., the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, an arms control agreement from 1987 that helped to end the Cold War. It was signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Trump’s move comes after President George W. Bush killed off the thirty year old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. At the time of its formulation the former US defence secretary, Robert McNamara, when lobbying successfully for the treaty, argued that ballistic missile defence could provoke an arms race, and that it might provoke a surprise first-strike against the nation fielding the defence. The Russians regarded the Bush annulment as a step back to the fears and threats of the Cold War.

Now with the prospect of a second annulment Moscow is up in arms, more than ever convinced that Washington is out to get the nuclear upper hand. All the indications are that it is. Trump has already refused an offer by President Vladimir Putin to cut another 1000 inter-continental missiles, the same sized cut that was made with President Barack Obama. He is pouring tens of billions of dollars into upgrading US nuclear forces.

This fits into the Trump philosophy of “America First”. He wants no constraints to be imposed on American foreign policy. This is why he quit the Paris climate accord and repudiated the international community’s nuclear deal with Iran. (Since this was approved unanimously by the UN Security Council the US is breaking international law.) Trump has even decided that the US will be leaving the 144-year-old Universal Postal Union. (He says that China gets too good a deal.)

The I.N.F. treaty establishes a prohibition of missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

Ending it is to inject an element of nuclear instability into European security. Russian nuclear weapons could then legitimately be targeted on Europe.

The administrations of President Barack Obama and Trump have both argued that Russia has acted in flagrant violation of the treaty. Russia’s deployment of a new generation of 9M279 land-based cruise missiles is said to be a direct challenge to the I.N.F’s commitments.

However, the intelligence behind the US claim has never been published. Russia has legitimately complained itself about the impact on the nuclear balance of new US missile defence systems.

So far European countries have lined up with the US. But now the tide is turning. Macron recently had a phone conversation with Trump arguing that the US’s remedy is counterproductive. He told Trump that he could lead a Nato-wide effort to hold Russia to the terms of the treaty, while discussing the pact’s extension to other nuclear powers that now have medium range systems of their own.

In an editorial on October 24th the Financial Times argued, “There is a temptation to see the idea of nuclear confrontation between great powers as belonging to the bygone age of Dr Strangelove. The world has moved on from mutually assured destruction. The reality, amplified by the demise of the I.N.F. treaty, is the threat of a new era of nuclear instability, this time unchecked by the agreements that stabilized the stand-off between the US and the Soviet Union….Now that the US has cut loose, why should China, India,- or, for that matter, Iran and North Korea- accept voluntary restraint?”

During the time of President Bill Clinton North Korea agreed to eliminate missiles with a range over 500 kilometers. The deal wasn’t finalized. Today it could be a base for constructing a new agreement. This would remove the Korean missile threat to Japan.

If the US ceased its confrontation with Iran it could negotiate an agreement to limit its 500-kilometer-range systems. This would take away the Iranian missile threat to Israel.

India, China and Pakistan could agree not to nuclearize missiles with ranges below 500 Km. This would keep their short-range conventional missiles distinct from nuclear systems, reducing the destabilizing ambiguity in such missiles.

But Trump wants to blow up all these positive possibilities.

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