I have called my daughter, Nika, a “perestroika baby.” She was conceived in Russia during that earthshaking period when, under the radical tenure of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the country began to open up and the Cold War began to thaw. Nika was born just a few years after Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan signed the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, one of the world’s most important nuclear arms accords.
With the stroke of two pens, the agreement banned an entire class of nuclear weapons, led to the destruction of nearly 2,700 warheads and diminished the threat of nuclear war in Europe. At the time, Gorbachev said, “We can be proud to plant this sapling, which someday may grow to be a full tree of peace.”
Thirty-one years later, President Trump is taking an ax to that tree. This month, he announced that the United States will withdraw from the INF, all but inviting a new arms race: “We have more money than anybody else by far,” Trump said. “We’ll build it up until [China and Russia] come to their senses.”
Withdrawal from the INF will weaken global nonproliferation efforts and compromise all nations’ safety. The Union of Concerned Scientists said the move would “ultimately undermine the security of the United States and its allies.” The European Union’s foreign ministry declared, “The world doesn’t need a new arms race that would . . . bring even more instability.” At Brookings, Steven Pifer, an arms control expert who served in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, called the withdrawal “a loser all around.”
Gorbachev himself weighed in in an op-ed for the New York Times last week: “I am convinced that those who hope to benefit from a global free-for-all are deeply mistaken. There will be no winner in a ‘war of all against all’ — particularly if it ends in a nuclear war. And that is a possibility that cannot be ruled out. An unrelenting arms race, international tensions, hostility and universal mistrust will only increase the risk.”
The risk, and the militarization of relations, have increased over past years and administrations. As Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University (disclosure: he is also my spouse), recently pointed out for the Nation, Bill Clinton expanded NATO farther and farther east toward Russia’s borders, and Bush unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
In that way, Trump’s action is simply the latest in a line of American provocations that have led Russia to violate the treaty. However, these violations, disputed by Russians, alone “would not by itself be a compelling argument for withdrawal,” according to former defense official and INF critic Elbridge Colby.
Regardless, Trump’s raw aggression sets him apart from his predecessors. Last year, I argued that “Trump’s decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal recklessly imperils the landmark agreement and our security.” Since then, it has only worsened as he pushes the world ever closer to nuclear peril. At least partly because of his policies, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock is now set to two minutes to midnight, tied for the highest threat of nuclear war ever recorded.
In a recent speech, Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), laid out a road map that citizens can follow to push back against Trump and forward toward a nuclear-free world. The first step, says Fihn, is to inform and be informed: “Learn how your community, the bank, the services you use are complicit in developing nuclear weapons. And share with others the reality of the threat, the great humanitarian harm that would follow any nuclear attack and will spread across borders. Don’t let people forget that these weapons exist until is too late.”
Members of Congress, too, must take action to reduce the risk of nuclear war. Several are. Back in January 2017, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) introduced a bill “that would prevent the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a congressional declaration of war . . . legislation meant to pry the nuclear football out of the president’s hands,” as Emily Tamkin put it in Foreign Policy.
Democratic policymakers have demanded answers about the INF decision. Reps. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) of the Armed Services Committee, and Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) and Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) of the Foreign Affairs Committee, released a letter calling for a briefing on the decision and refusing to “support, [or] enable, a precipitous course of action that increases the risk of an unconstrained nuclear arms race.”
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) made an even stronger statement. He tweeted that the withdrawal “plunges us back into a nuclear arms race and endangers our troops, allies, & the world, while wasting taxpayer dollars to prepare for a nuclear war that must never be fought . . . We cannot contribute to a ratcheting up of tensions that could put our nation and the globe at risk of catastrophic war.”
That kind of thinking and leadership is needed now, more than ever.
Common-sense legislation is also needed to deal with the approximately 900 missiles currently on “hair-trigger alert,” ready to launch in a matter of minutes. And in the American Conservative, Bruce Fein, who served as associate deputy attorney general during the Reagan administration, smartly suggested that Congress “approve legislation that prohibits the expenditure of any funds of the United States to deploy weapons or in any other respect contravene the INF treaty.”
In 2002, as editor of the Nation, I had the honor to be presented with the Global Green USA award by Gorbachev. In accepting, I said, “From the moment [Gorbachev] came to power, he insisted that there are always alternatives in history and politics . . . alternatives that are better than the status quo.” It is not too late to end this dangerous status quo. Let’s demand a better future, one that is free from nuclear weapons.