For more than four decades, East and West stared down each other in a long and chilling Cold War that threatened this planet’s very future with the prospect of nuclear obliteration at the press of a button. That this darkest chapter ended in essence without a shot being fired across the Iron Curtain — and even though there were enough tanks and firepower on both sides to inflict more collateral damage than that was done during the Second World War — it did so because leaders of vision, both capitalist and communist, were willing to take the bravest of steps and talk to each other.
The result of this gradual easing of nuclear tensions — and with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet satellite republics — was that a comprehensive set of international agreements reduced those large arsenals of atomic weapons held on both sides of that Iron Curtain. And while there is no longer the threat of immediate all-out nuclear conflagration, there are still former enemies who now look at each other with mistrust, and who oppose each other through regional conflicts and tension that endure across the Middle East and elsewhere to this day.
Over the past recent years, Russia has been flexing its muscle, and its annexation of the Crimea showed officials in the Kremlin that it could pursue its foreign affairs’ agenda forcefully with little real opposition from the European Union and the United States while under the leadership of former president Barack Obama.
The reality now of course is that there is a new sheriff in town, and President Donald Trump is determined to take his own independent foreign policy decisions in his stated campaign of making America great again.
Listening to the advice of National Security Adviser John Bolton, Trump has announced his intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, signed in 1987. Historically, while Cold War tensions were lessened, the INF played a fundamental role in the removal of nuclear weapons, both tactical and strategic, from both the continents.
Trump’s intent to withdraw from the INF is in reaction to the rising military prowess of China and the development by Russia of a new generation of cruise missiles. These weapons have the ability to strike within metres of any target, travelling at low levels to avoid detection. They change the very nature of strategic warfare. Armed with a nuclear warhead, their first strike potential is most dangerous, and Trump’s stated intent to pull out of the treaty places an urgent focus on this category of weaponry. The truth though is that nuclear treaties work, and withdrawing from them rather than improving them is an unwise course of action.