A few months ago, Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. representative to NATO, suggested that Russia is violating the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and suggested the U.S. and NATO forces might have to “take them out.” More recently, President Trump has signaled the United States will withdraw from the INF treaty.
Both of these incidents have raised fears of a new Cold War and bring up a host of nuclear diplomacy issues. It does sound incredibly scary to talk about “taking out” nuclear sites or a Cold War, or developing new and advanced missiles in competition with Russia. But as I said before, nuclear diplomacy and the language of force is a much needed factor that can’t be disregarded.
The issues at stake with Trump withdrawing from the treaty are mainly parity and deterrence, but they have a great deal to do with a first strike as well. A preemptive first strike is one of the most important features of nuclear diplomacy. It offers the attraction of winning a nuclear war in a single stroke. The first strike hits all of the enemy’s assets before their missiles can be launched with devastating effect.
Because of the tempting power of a first strike, both nations worked toward having a counter-strike capability and parity. This included hardening silos and having different methods of delivery such as bombers and submarines. A counter-strike capability would produce a deterrent that makes the first strike seem less attractive. The counter- strike capabilities produced a rough parity, where both sides avoided using nuclear weapons because of the mutually assured destruction that would happen if either side used them.
This became the often mocked MAD policy that dictated foreign policy during the Cold War. An occasional stink about a missile gap and the introduction of new technologies such as more powerful bombs or better delivery systems produced a response and counter-response that increased nuclear arsenals around the world. Finally in the 80s, the world and its two leading superpowers talked about arms reduction that dismantled some of the apparatus that generated over 50 years of tension.
This is why Trump pulling out of the treaty is so important. The Russians are essentially fielding new missiles that reject the restraints imposed on both powers, and missiles that the U.S. could not properly counter. When a nuclear power is violating its treaty obligations —placing missiles that can reach vital American bases and allies— it is a dangerous threat that should be solved through nuclear diplomacy. In other words, if the U.S. doesn’t achieve parity with the Russian intermediate missiles, it would actually make war more likely because Russia would have a first- strike capability, and leave the U.S. at a disadvantage in any potential future war.
In short, there is a danger of a Cold War arms race, but it is better than a one-sided arms buildup by an aggressive foe like Russia. Russians violating the nuclear treaty is a dangerous trend that needs to be nipped in the bud with the language of nuclear diplomacy, including a possible first strike with conventional weapons, and the U.S. withdrawing from the INF treaty to develop appropriate defenses and counter-responses.