Trump is trashing arms control treaties and making the world more dangerous

The Times Editorial Board
June 11, 2020

Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has maintained a so-called Doomsday Clock designed to indicate how close the world was to a catastrophe caused by nuclear war or, more recently, other causes such as climate change.

In January, the group moved the clock to 100 seconds to midnight, the direst setting yet. Among other reasons for the change, the group blamed world leaders who “denigrate and discard the most effective methods for addressing complex threats — international agreements with strong verification regimes — in favor of their own narrow interests and domestic political gain.”

The Doomsday Clock is a symbol to be taken seriously, not literally. But its custodians are right to sound the alarm about leaders who seek to undermine arms control agreements. One of them is the current president of the United States.

First, Donald Trump repudiated the international agreement that made it harder for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Then, claiming that Russia was cheating, he disavowed the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Finally, last month Trump said he was pulling the United States out of the Open Skies Treaty signed in 1992. Under that agreement, 34 nations allow each other’s reconnaissance aircraft to fly over their territory to monitor possible troop movements and missile installations. In announcing that it would withdraw from the treaty, the Trump administration cited both Russian restrictions on where U.S. planes could fly in that country and financial costs associated with replacing surveillance aircraft.

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The administration’s announcement jolted America’s European allies, who rely on information from the surveillance flights to keep track of Russian military exercises on NATO’s eastern flank. Retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, the former director of both the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, said Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty was “insane.”

Trump indicated that he could change his mind about withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty if Russia complied fully with the agreement. But by announcing that the U.S. would withdraw — rather than challenging Russian restrictions before a commission established to implement the treaty — he gave Russia no incentive to modify its behavior. If Trump goes through with the withdrawal, the U.S. and its allies will be denied valuable information about Russian intentions.