These days, Washington is not lacking for reasons to mistrust Russia. But before Vladimir Putin’s recent move into Crimea, another example of apparent Russian duplicity was receiving increased attention among policymakers: violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
Last week, Florida senator—and likely presidential aspirant—Marco Rubio stood before a crowd at the Heritage Foundation and denounced Russia’s behavior and President Obama’s failure to respond to it. Obama’s approach, Rubio said, “only lends credence to the notion that the U.S. is quite frankly, under this president and under this administration, an unreliable partner and one that’s not credible.” In Rubio’s view, Obama was compounding error by pushing for new nuclear agreements with Russia despite these violations.
This attack on Obama’s approach to arms control was reminiscent of another ambitious GOP politician looking to burnish his defense credentials ahead of a White House run back in 2010. At the time, the administration was pushing for ratification of the New START treaty, a successor to the 1991 START treaty, which limited deployed nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles and provided for a bilateral verification regime.
New START, Romney wrote at the time, showed Obama’s willingness to negotiate away U.S. capabilities—including missile defense—for an uncertain future promise of Russian collaboration on nuclear arms over the long term. The treaty “could be his worst foreign policy mistake yet.”
But whether or not Rubio ultimately emerges as the GOP’s choice for president, Obama’s nuclear arms control agenda will remain a tempting target for Republican presidential hopefuls.
On one level, a focus on arms control at this point in time may seem puzzling. In the years following New START, the issue is in a period of relative stasis and additional formal agreements are unlikely any time soon. Despite periodic rumblings about follow-on nuclear arsenal reductions, potentially through mechanisms other than a treaty, there is little near-term prospect for a new treaty on nuclear arsenal limits, U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or an agreement on fissile material.
So why arms control and why now? The answer, in large part, is political and ideological. Washington is mostly focused on jobs and the economy, and amid an array of seemingly intractable international challenges—including the crisis in Syria, the future of Afghanistan, and the longer-term question of how to respond to China’s rise—nuclear arms control offers an opportunity to define a relatively clear partisan and ideological division on foreign policy.
“The U.S. is stuck in this idea that we can lead by example,” Rubio argued. “Somehow Putin is going to follow our example and do the same. Well that’s proven not to be true, and in fact the opposite is happening.” U.S.-Russia engagement “only works if you’re both working towards the same goal,” and Russian goals for nuclear negotiations “are very different than ours.”
“We should not be entering any more negotiations with the Russians on any weapons systems” as long as they are openly violating previous commitments, he concluded.
The administration sees things differently. Last month, acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller reiterated that the United States “is seeking negotiated cuts with Russia so that we can continue to move beyond Cold War postures.” Dialogue with the Russians would foster “a more stable, resilient, and transparent security relationship.”
While the situation in Crimea will disrupt such a dialogue for the time being, meaningful progress on the Prague agenda will require substantial cooperation from the Russians at some point in the future. Moreover, Presidents from both parties have negotiated arms control agreements with the Russians—and the Soviets before them—despite substantial disagreements on other issues. There is no reason to think this won’t happen again.
The INF debate hinges on whether Russia tested or deployed ballistic or cruise land-based missiles with a maximum range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Recent reporting in the New York Times and elsewhere indicated that Gottemoeller had briefed NATO allies about apparent Russian testing of a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the treaty. Some conservatives contend that Russian violations go back further and encompass a variety of missile systems.
On its twenty-fifth anniversary of the treaty, Greg Thielmann wrote that the treaty was “unique, arising out of a particular place in time and circumstance between the two superpowers.” The elimination of an entire class of weapons helped to deescalate one aspect of the Cold War arms race.
Those circumstances have changed in the decades following the Soviet Union’s collapse. Even so, successive U.S. administrations have stuck by the treaty, which is of indefinite duration, as an important facet of the broader system of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control. In his recent memoir, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounts that Russia’s then defense minister Sergei Ivanov’s expressed a desire in 2007 to tear up the treaty and place INF systems “in the south and the east—to counter Iran, Pakistan, and China.” Gates replied that Russia could leave the treaty if it wanted, but without U.S. acquiescence.
But skirmishes over INF or other specific agreements are ultimately echoes of a broader debate: whether global zero is feasible or desirable.
Obama’s 2009 declaration in Prague that he would seek “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” energized both supporters and foes. The former group lauded him for his bold, forward looking vision aimed at eliminating one of the few truly existential threats to the United States. The latter dismissed the naïve fantasy that U.S. goodwill would be reciprocated in Moscow or Tehran (or for that matter in Paris or New Delhi).
The reality of the issue is, of course, more complicated than left vs. right. But in the constricted shorthand of U.S. presidential politics, nuclear arms control—and the implicit assumption that Russia and others can on some level be trusted to live up to reciprocal commitments—provides an opportunity for both sides to express their broader views on how the United States should guarantee its own security and project power on the world stage.
Will attacking arms control be a successful political strategy for GOP candidates looking to separate themselves from the pack? There are reasons to suspect it won’t. By the time the foreign-policy debate between Obama and—by then—candidate Romney took place, Romney neglected even to mention New START. The only nuclear issue that prompted a real discussion was the prospect of a nuclear armed-Iran. Such a debate held today would almost certainly emphasize the same issue, especially given the administration’s recent push to resolve the issue through diplomacy. In short: arguments based on the arcana of nuclear arms control are unlikely to sway voters.
Considerations of political efficacy aside, let us hope that the back and forth over INF can serve to advance a useful debate over the future of U.S. approach to its nuclear forces. Especially amid revelations about cheating and low morale in parts the nuclear deterrence enterprise, almost nobody believes that a simple continuation of the status quo is possible or desirable. Senator Rubio and others should think seriously about what comes next.
Eric Auner is a senior analyst at Guardian Six Consulting.