Donald Trump will make Europe a lot less safe
US president’s actions are reversing continent’s move away from arms proliferation
A Russian tactical nuclear-capable Iskander missile launches during the Zapad military exercises on the Luga range in the St Petersburg region. Photograph: Russian defence ministry
In 2016 Ireland, along with five other states (Austria, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa), successfully proposed a UN motion to ban the bomb – a demand to convene a conference to ban the production, storage, and use of all nuclear weapons. The tide of nuclear proliferation seemed to be ebbing.
A year earlier Iran had joined those willing to accept constraints on their nuclear programmes, and earlier, in 2010, the Obama-Putin relationship had secured a new START treaty, although they were at loggerheads over missile defence. But the world seemed slowly to be walking back from the nuclear precipice.
The resolution passed by 123 to 38 in the General Assembly, although the nuclear powers were certainly not signing up to an aspirational declaration that effectively saw nuclear weapons use as a war crime.
But sometimes gestures matter. That, it was said, is what active neutrality is about.
We are living in different times. The arms race tide has turned again and Europe is its focus. Only months ago Donald Trump repudiated the JCPOA – the Iran deal – and now he says he is set to tear up the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Moscow.
Encouraged by national security adviser John Bolton, who has for years campaigned against arms control as a fetter on US strategic freedom, Trump has also made noises about his dislike of the 2010 US-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The important treaty sets limits on the numbers of long-range missiles and launch platforms.
Non-proliferation has gone into reverse big time. Suddenly, as the prospects of a new Cold War-like arms race on the European mainland loom, our neighbourhood seems set to become a distinctly less safe place, bristling with new weapons, and once again a key target zone for nuclear war strategists.
The landmark INF, the first of the anti-proliferation arms treaties to break the cycle of Cold War “balance of terror”, the mutually-assured destruction madness that led to the constant ratcheting up of weapons competition, was signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and signalled a key moment in evolving detente between the great powers.
With Europeans getting increasingly nervous at the deployment of US and Russian short-range and intermediate-range missiles on their soil, the treaty sought to end the hair-trigger calculus embedded in the missiles that gave both sides barely minutes of warning before Armageddon.
The Soviets had even developed a Doomsday machine that could automatically order a nuclear retaliation without human intervention if it senses a nuclear attack on Russian soil.
The INF banned all US and Soviet land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500km. The agreement resulted in the destruction of nearly 2,700 missiles as well as their launchers, many of them on European soil, and it has kept nuclear missiles out of Europe for three decades.
“The INF contributed to the end of the Cold War and constitutes a pillar of European security architecture since it entered into force 30 years ago,” a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said in a statement this week.
But neither the EU nor its member states, like Ireland, are parties to the INF. They had no say in its enactment, and will have none in its repeal, although it intimately concerns them.
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, raised the issue with Trump in a phone call on Sunday. “The president of the republic underlined the importance of this treaty, especially with regards to European security,” the French foreign ministry said. “France attributes great importance to conventional and nuclear arms control instruments . . .”
The British, on the other hand, expressed sympathy with the US position.
Trump has insisted that the move is a response to Russian breaches of the treaty. The violations have been relatively small-scale, involving the construction of some 40-50 prohibited SSC-8 cruise missiles, whose range the US says is well in excess of 500km, a contention denied by the Russians.
And Moscow has accused the US of violating the treaty by taking a sea-based missile launcher, the Aegis, and putting it ashore. The US denies that the shore-based launcher can launch the banned Tomahawk missiles.
There is real concern that the repudiation of the INF will now lead to a massive arms escalation in Europe to meet the alleged Russian threat, with the latter responding in kind.
Once again Trump has struck a blow at the 'multilateral, rules-based international order' that is in the EU’s DNA
And Trump is not just threatening to roll back anti-proliferation measures but is also consciously restarting the arms race, with a full nuclear modernisation plan that could cost up to $1.6 trillion over 30 years, according to an October 2017 estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.
The administration sees a need to free the US of any treaty restrictions on an arms buildup, seeing the strategic threat in distinctly Cold War terms. “The central challenge to US prosperity and security is the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition” from Russia and China, the 2018 National Defence Strategy says. “The drive to develop new technologies is relentless.”
Trump told reporters on Monday that he would increase the US nuclear stockpile – including against China – “until people come to their senses”.
His critics say that the US should use the treaty’s non-conform provisions instead of bringing the whole treaty down.
But, among suggested alternative approaches by nuclear weapons experts at the Brookings Institution Steven Pifer is moving a large number of conventionally armed missiles to Europe, temporarily deploying B-1 bombers across the Atlantic as missile delivery platforms and increasing the number of conventionally armed sea-launched cruise missiles on board US ships in European waters.
That prospect of a buildup of weapons in Europe will be almost as concerning to EU governments as a nuclear re-escalation on the continent.
The diplomatic challenge for the EU is significant. Once again Trump, as he has on trade, the environment, the economy and the UN, has struck a blow at the “multilateral, rules-based international order” that is so much part of the EU’s political DNA.
Unlikely to agree a unified position on the INF, the EU remains an impotent hurler on the ditch, pleading with both sides to show restraint. Ireland accepts that the US has genuine concerns about Russian breaches of the treaty but wants these addressed “within the framework of the treaty and through constructive dialogue”.
It’s all a far cry from the idealism of the UN resolution in 2016. Dangerous times.
Patrick Smyth is Europe Editor