President Trump announced Friday that the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing Russia's noncompliance with the decades-old agreement. This was, among the other things, the greatest escalation of hostilities with Russia by an American president in more than 30 years, perhaps even the most significant since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
If nothing else this decision puts paid to the lunatic fiction that Trump is in any conceivable manner serving the interests of Russia. Meanwhile we are faced with the revolting spectacle of defense executives licking their lips at the thought of profiting from the construction of weapons capable of killing a million people more or less instantaneously.
Still, it is possible to be of two minds about the administration's decision to withdraw from the agreement. The 31-year-old INF is not without its problems. For one thing, its language was outdated. For more than a decade, Putin's Russia has been able to comply with the letter but not the spirit of the treaty by building large numbers of weapons that, while perhaps not technically restricted by the text of the document, are certainly the sort of thing whose construction it had been meant to impede — forever. This is to say nothing of the fact that China, a much greater threat to American security than Russia will ever hope to be again, is not a party to the agreement, limiting its effectiveness.
This means that, however alarming we may find the short-term prospect of the collapse, there is a great opportunity here for diplomacy. The negotiation of a new wide-ranging arms control treaty, one that would bind not only the United States and her allies, Russia, and China, but perhaps Iran and North Korea as well, would be the greatest diplomatic triumph of our young century.
How optimistic should we be about the ability of Trump and his administration to bring together such an agreement? It is difficult to say. But I for one find it hard to imagine his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who has come up in the world of GOP foreign policy brinksmanship, being the man to do it, though I would be happy to be proven wrong.
Certain facts are worth facing at the outset. One is that no meaningful deal is likely to be reached that does not involve significant — perhaps even, for the United States, fatal — concessions to China's economics interests. The reign of globalized free trade is destroying us, materially and spiritually. What would a new Cold War do?
In the meantime, I cannot be the only person who feels a quiet sense of horror at the thought of the post-Cold War order collapsing as it were overnight. My mind is full of visions — skin sliding off human faces like a strip of bark, the bodies of children melting, babies turned to charcoal dust. But the truth is that we were never very far away from these possibilities. The peace of 1989 was a lie. Hundreds of millions of us could die an instant because we have created Satanic engines of destruction that cannot be employed in the service of any just cause and refused to destroy them forever.
This is why in the long-term total disarmament is the only solution. Nuclear war is impossible. Such a conflict could not be won. It would mean the end of civilization itself.
Now the task of saving us from this horrendous fate has fallen to a man who makes glib jokes about the size of his nuclear button. I for one will be praying.