ALL WAS auspicious for the start of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. The American and Russian leaders, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, signed it at precisely 1.45pm on December 8th, 1987—a time recommended by the First Lady’s astrologer. It had a Venusian effect on the world. For the first time an entire class of nuclear weapons was eliminated. The cold war was calmed at a critical moment.
Sadly, the stars are no longer aligned. On October 20th President Donald Trump told a crowd that he intended to “terminate” the deal. His national security adviser, John Bolton, who has never seen an arms-control agreement that would not be improved by a shredder, delivered the message in Moscow. The decision, Mr Gorbachev (now 87) regretted, was “not the work of a great mind”.
The INF treaty was forged after the Euromissile crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s. A prolonged missile race between America and the Soviet Union had provoked large protests at the deployment of American nuclear missiles in Europe, on sites like Greenham Common in Britain. The treaty barred the production or flight-testing of ground-based missiles with ranges of 500km to 5,500km. Thousands of missiles and launchers were blown up, cut in half and crushed.
Though the treaty turned 30 last year, few celebrated. The Trump administration has accused Russia of cheating (as did the Obama administration) by testing and deploying a new cruise missile known as 9M729. Russia hit back, less convincingly, by arguing that the launchers in NATO’s missile-defence shield in Poland and Romania violated the agreement. Though America’s allies were initially circumspect, they were coming round. “The most plausible assessment”, agreedNATO leaders at a summit in July, “would be that Russia is in violation of the INF Treaty.” The rise of China, which never signed the treaty, also fuelled concerns, first in Moscow and more recently in Washington. American commanders in the Pacific grumble that whereas China can pile up ground-based missiles (over 95% of its missiles fall in the INF range) America must rely on those launched from ships, submarines and aircraft. These platforms cost more, have limited space to cram in missiles, and have other tasks to get on with.
Barack Obama and America’s European allies should have done more to pressure Russia years ago. But Mr Trump had plenty of leeway to respond within the rules. In February a review of American nuclear policy declared, controversially, that the Pentagon would pursue a new, nuclear-armed submarine-launched cruise missile as “an INF Treaty-compliant response” to Russia. America is also spending billions of dollars to upgrade 150-odd B61 nuclear bombs that are squirrelled away across Europe and can be dropped by allies’ aircraft.
Mr Trump has promised that, once America is liberated from the treaty, “there will be nobody that’s going to be even close to us”. But it will take years for America to develop suitable ground-launched weapons. It would then confront the question of where to put them. Poland and the Baltic states, scarred by Soviet occupation, might be keen. But missiles so close to the Russian border would be both provocative—“think Cuban missile crisis”, says Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, who took part in INF negotiations—and vulnerable to attack.
The president’s decision has already split NATO, which was neither consulted nor forewarned. The divide could widen. Were Russia to respond by building up the contentious 9M729 missile, the alliance would face an explosive debate over whether its missile-defence shield, a controversial project justified as a defence against threats from Iran and North Korea, should be adapted to tackle Russian cruise missiles. In Asia, allies like Japan and South Korea would almost certainly balk at hosting missiles, forcing America to concentrate them on faraway Guam.
The death of the INF points to a looming crisis in arms control. Mr Trump has already torn up a nuclear deal with Iran and denounced the New START treaty, a pact that caps the nuclear arsenals of America and Russia, which is up for renewal in two years. If the INF is killed off and New START is allowed to die, it would be the first time in almost 50 years that the world’s two largest nuclear powers were wholly unshackled. A new arms race is “entirely possible”, warns Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russian nuclear weapons. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.” It does not require an astrologer to see trouble ahead.