‘We have over a decade of experience with the Soviets cheating on arms-control agreements,” Jack Kemp wrote in the May 22, 1987, issue of National Review, opposing what became the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Now that President Obama has informed NATO that Russia recently violated that agreement, we have another quarter-century’s worth. More important, we now have experience enough to know that many arms-control advocates simply don’t care.
The agreement Kemp opposed, the INF, banned the development and deployment of ballistic missiles and cruise missiles of a certain range, hundreds of which the Soviet Union and the United States had set against each other in Europe and western Russia. Evidence of violations has been popping up in the Russian press since 2008. Publicly, the Obama administration has done nothing. Privately, Secretary of State John Kerry has said nothing to his Russian counterpart.
Opponents of arms-control treaties often worry about the effectiveness of monitoring and compliance systems; in the end, President Reagan got a relatively effective setup for the INF (it was also an easily enforceable agreement by its nature). Good implementation didn’t avoid the strategic flaws of the treaty: The U.S.’s withdrawal of nuclear forces from Europe, as the INF required, substantially weakened the position of our allies in Europe vis-à-vis that of the Soviet Union and raised the risk of conventional war on the continent. Today, it is no better: The INF precludes us from developing such intermediate-range weapons while China, India, and Pakistan charge ahead with building them — and North Korea and Iran, with less success but more obvious malice, attempt to.
But leave aside the strategic and practical problems of these treaties. This administration, and our arms-control bureaucracy at large, has shown no desire to enforce them even when the violations are on the front pages of Pravda or the New York Times.
Putin’s Russia, ever-eager to expand its influence over neighboring states but always short on resources, sees intermediate-range nukes as an attractive possibility. (Legitimately, the Russians are also concerned that China is developing such systems.) They have thus threatened for years to withdraw from the INF treaty, suggesting that they would pull out and break off other negotiations if the U.S. followed through on a Bush-era promise to deploy missile defenses in Eastern Europe. The Obama administration canceled those plans (choosing another system, which hasn’t been completed), knowing that the Russians were likely already in violation of the treaty they offered to preserve.
Reports indicate that Congress will use the evidence of the Russians’ perfidy — though the Obama administration has shared the specifics with denizens of Brussels and not Capitol Hill — to resist any more attempts at reduction in nuclear arms. They should, though the president has already entered into one agreement, New START, more unwise than anything President Reagan ever assented to.
He would like more joint agreements on missile defense, and further reductions in warheads — the latter he may even try to accomplish with his preferred means, the pen and the phone.
If the Obama administration had been more honest about evidence of the Russian INF violations, New START probably never would have passed. Senator John Kerry, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, learned about the violations in 2012 and privately expressed frustration over them — because making the news public would get in the way of future arms agreements.
The behavior is not dissimilar from the secretive nature of Secretary Kerry’s talks with Iran and the refusal of the Obama administration to allow clear, automatic enforcement mechanisms. But it’s not like we have 35 years’ worth of reasons to distrust Iran . . .