Trump's withdrawal from the INF arms treaty with Russia is perilous

The post-Cold War infrastructure, built over years, is being dismantled by the US President

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin react as they meet in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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On this day in 1962, then US President John F Kennedy imposed a naval blockade on Cuba, activating the Cuban missile crisis – the closest the world has ever come to all-out nuclear war. Fifty-six years on, there are echoes of this precarious stand-off in US President Donald Trump's decision yesterday to withdraw from a 1987 nuclear weapons treaty with Russia.

Mr Trump is used to shooting from the hip, which might help him consolidate support domestically. But when it comes to fragile international treaties, that strategy is at best ill-conceived and at worst, extremely dangerous. Today the world sits on a hairline fracture and this is no time for shortsighted manoeuvres.

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union developed medium-range ballistic missiles and the US equipped its European allies with similar weaponry in response. But the crucial 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which banned such weapons and spurred the destruction of 2,692 missiles, dramatically eased tensions.

Today the threatening behaviour that characterised the Cold War is again gaining traction in Washington and Moscow and Russia has already condemned Mr Trump's move as a "very dangerous step".

It is worth acknowledging that Russia might well have violated the INF treaty in recent years – a charge the Kremlin denies. Mr Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama accused Moscow of breaching it in 2014 but decided against shredding the agreement – and with good reason. Without it in place, Russia has free rein to develop ballistic missiles capable of striking Nato countries.

Meanwhile, the decision has sent ripples through European capitals, which have long implored Moscow to comply with the treaty rather than tearing it up. That is a view also held by Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg.

Mr Trump’s actions further destabilise the multilateral agreements that bind Nato, an organisation that has been riven with disagreement since he took office. A Nato divided makes for a more dangerous world.

There are other factors at play. In the US, special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing probe into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election might have pushed the US president towards a tough stance on Moscow. Meanwhile China is not a signatory to the deal and can therefore develop mid-range missiles without constraint – a reality that has irked some in the US administration.

But what is evident here is Mr Trump’s unilateralism and scant regard for the concerns of Nato partners. The international institutions and treaties that followed the Cold War have made the world more secure. But it is that very infrastructure that Mr Trump is dismantling piece by piece.

Although his efforts to contain the nuclear threat of Iran and North Korea have been welcome – if not entirely successful in deterring the nuclear enriching capabilities of either – Mr Trump remains unpredictable, with a tendency towards the extreme. It is decisions like these that will impact future generations, long after he has left office.