Suddenly comparisons between Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan are everywhere. Whether we measure by how they used summits to schmooze up dictators or rile up allies, how they strengthened free trade or talked about democracy (or even how they managed chaos and discord among their own advisers), there are many things in Reagan’s record that make the current President look really bad—and others that argue for cutting Trump a little slack.
One policy-relevant comparison has not, however, gotten enough attention: how to use an arms build-up to advance arms control. That’s what President Trump is proposing to do in an effort to save the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, one of Reagan’s great achievements. It’s painfully clear our President needs some pointers.
Like its predecessor, the Trump Administration accuses Russia of deploying a missile that violates the INF Treaty. Because, says Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, he wants to make sure “our negotiators have something to negotiate with,” the Pentagon has asked Congress to approve two new weapons that it hopes will bring Moscow back into compliance. It wants a low-yield nuclear warhead that will be deployed on existing submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and a new sea-launched cruise missile that has not yet been developed.
It was, of course, by deploying new weapons that Ronald Reagan was able to conclude the INF Treaty in the first place. But the bargaining-chip approach to arms control has been little used by U.S. negotiators in the thirty years since—and it shows. If policymakers want the strategy to succeed the second time around, they need to know how it worked before and adapt the lessons to today’s circumstances. (Trump may find these lessons help him even with Kim Jong-un, not just Vladimir Putin.)
The Reagan Record
The INF Treaty can sound like a near-effortless success: After a late 1970s Soviet build-up, NATO responded with its own deployments in the early 1980s, followed by a breakthrough arms-control agreement. Even so, the outcome was far from automatic. To understand the Reagan Administration’s “dual-track” strategy, we have to unpack its key elements. There were seven of them, and all played a part in the favorable result.
First was clear public perception of a significant threat. U.S. officials had worried about the Soviet edge in medium-range missiles targeting Europe since the 1950s but without doing much about it. What energized Western policy was a new and more capable missile, the SS-20. This modern weapon, deployed in large numbers, was easy to portray as a tool to intimidate and divide the United States and its European allies.
The second element of American strategy was its scale: Moscow could hardly ignore the countermeasures that NATO authorized. Arms controllers on both sides of the Atlantic warned that the Pershing II ballistic missiles to be stationed in West Germany, though neither as large nor as numerous as the SS-20s, might be capable of a decapitating strike on Moscow. Soviet leaders, as their harsh and relentless propaganda campaign made clear, were determined to prevent deployment.
Third, Washington challenged Moscow with a bold negotiating proposal. The Reagan Administration offered to cancel U.S. deployments if—but only if—the Soviet Union scrapped all its ground-based medium-range missiles, in Europe and beyond. This “zero option” cast Reagan as the arms-control visionary, and Soviet leaders as reactionary defenders of the nuclear status quo.
A fourth element of U.S. strategy—strong alliance solidarity—was fundamental. The INF negotiations were a multi-year struggle for European opinion. Both the public and major parties were sharply divided, and the West German government actually collapsed halfway through the story. When U.S. missiles arrived at European bases in late 1983, the Soviets walked out of the talks, further heightening tensions. Yet NATO unity held. Every alliance member that had agreed to accept deployments did so on schedule.
American policymakers sustained this solidarity with a fifth feature of their strategy: enough flexibility to keep negotiations going. After the Soviet walkout, talks were suspended for more than a year. To restart them, the United States agreed to a broader agenda that encompassed both intermediate- and long-range missiles as well as space-based weapons. (Reagan’s enthusiasm for anti-missile technology made the last of these a special Soviet concern.) The wider menu of possibilities did not make U.S. negotiators any less stubborn, but it encouraged both Gorbachev and European governments to believe agreement was possible.
A sixth element of U.S. policy was equally important: Washington was ready to take yes for an answer. Most Western strategists and political figures felt Moscow would never agree to the zero option. When it became clear that Gorbachev would do so, some of these figures (Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger among them) reconsidered their support. Deterrence, they argued, depended on bolstering NATO capabilities. Reagan was unswayed by their critique, seeing the deal as an opportunity to exploit faltering Soviet resolve and put nuclear policy on a new track.
Finally, Reagan established a credible link between arms control and political relations overall. Both Washington and Moscow saw the INF Treaty as an investment in the future. Gorbachev signed it as the only available ticket to true détente and to an international climate favorable to his reforms. His gamble paid off. The three summits held in the last year-plus of Reagan’s presidency began the unravelling of the Cold War.
So how does current U.S. policy match up with this record? Not well at all. The Trump Administration has failed to check a single one of the seven boxes on the Reagan to-do list.
Take the first item: public awareness. Alleged Russian violations of the INF Treaty have been little discussed except by experts, largely because the claims rest on sensitive intelligence. American officials will need to be more open and convincing about the threat to Europe posed by Russian nuclear forces.
The Trump Administration has done little better on the second test—the scale of its response. It remains unclear how many of the new systems that the Pentagon wants will be deployed, and when they will materialize. To get Moscow’s attention, Washington has to say more about its bargaining chips. Marginal enhancements of the U.S. military posture in Europe will not produce real Russian rethinking.
Without a proposal that puts pressure on Moscow to deal, U.S. officials will be unable to check the third Reagan box. For all the opposition it generated, the zero-option positioned the United States against a nuclear arms race. The Pentagon’s current proposals make it seem an advocate.
Even if Washington puts an attractive plan on the table, Russian policymakers will carefully watch the fourth box: alliance solidarity. They may not negotiate seriously until they see that Washington can generate and hold support for its approach. The Trump Administration needs to persuade NATO members to do something they will surely find distasteful: endorse a nuclear build-up. But letting allies stand aside gives Moscow a chance—an incentive, even—to peel away support for U.S. policy.
In the 1980s, the INF talks made progress in part by being bundled with other issues, including missile defenses. This should be item five on the Administration’s list: making the agenda broad enough to draw the Russians in, without giving away too much. Reagan solved this problem thirty years ago, but it required an unusual combination of blue-sky flexibility and red lines that he would not cross. Washington has no comparable formula today.
The sixth box—taking yes for an answer—may also be difficult. After decades of declining budgets, Europe’s defenses do need bolstering. Will the U.S. President and his advisors—once they get the buy-in of Congress, the military services, the alliance, and the public—actually sacrifice their new weapons? If Putin proves ready to negotiate, Trump will have to decide whether his bargaining chips were meant for bargaining, should fortify a much-needed NATO build-up, or can be replaced with other measures that serve the same end. (In a sign that the Pentagon will want to hold on to the warheads, Secretary Mattis is now justifying their deployment without referring to the INF Treaty at all.)
The final test suggested by the Reagan record may be the most important of all: what kind of payoff will the two sides expect from an agreement? Right now, both U.S. and Russian policymakers probably doubt that solving their INF dispute will generate diplomatic rewards broad enough to justify the effort. Russian leaders will look for hints that an arms control deal will lead in some fashion to relief from the sanctions imposed by Western governments in the past five years. American and European policymakers will want to know whether Russia will change direction on the issues—from cyber-hacking to Ukraine—that led to sanctions in the first place.
Alternatives to Reagan?
The Trump Administration’s bargaining-chip strategy should be measured against these seven tests from the 1980s: public awareness of the problem, potent counter-measures, a bold proposal, NATO unity, a broad agenda, readiness to close a deal if the Russians are ready, and a credible path to improved relations.
It’s a demanding list—so demanding, in fact, that U.S. policymakers will be tempted to look for alternatives. There are other ways to react to Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty, but they involve obvious risks and will not serve U.S. interests better than the Reagan model.
One obvious alternative will be to accept the treaty’s collapse and to pursue a new U.S. military posture in Europe that incorporates weapons now prohibited. (Congress has already taken a step in this direction, making funds available for a new ground-launched cruise missile, which, unlike the systems proposed by the Pentagon, would clearly violate the INF Treaty.) The main selling point of this approach will be its seeming realism: The United States cannot long abide by rules that Russia is openly breaking. For its part, Moscow may decide to live within the treaty only when it sees that the U.S. side is prepared to move beyond it.
Yet scrapping the INF Treaty is not the right response, certainly not the right first one. The treaty confers enormous advantages on the United States in defending its European allies. Complying with its terms is easy for U.S. forces and difficult for Russia. Such a favorable arrangement should not be lightly discarded. If the treaty ultimately does collapse, NATO will find it easier to agree on a follow-on strategy if it has first sought to preserve the treaty by negotiation.
A second alternative is to pursue an even broader treaty, this time with universal reach. A global ban on medium-range ground-launched missiles would address Russia’s core complaint—that its neighbors are, under the current treaty, allowed to deploy weapons that Russia is not. National Security Advisor John Bolton once proposed such a global ban, and he may do so again.
It’s a great idea, in theory: A universalized INF Treaty would definitely serve the interests of the United States, which relies on air- and sea-launched missiles for most military missions. (At least at intermediate ranges, ground-launched missiles add little to U.S. capabilities.) Unfortunately, few other countries would accept a global ban: trying to universalize the INF Treaty will almost certainly lead to its collapse.
The Trump Administration’s current policy represents a third alternative to the Reagan-style strategy described here—a tentative build-up of new weapons, but without the other elements of policy that might enable it to succeed. Its prospects are extremely dubious.
That Russia may have decided to break out of the INF Treaty is one sign of what U.S. officials call a “deteriorating strategic environment.” In both Washington and Moscow, there is growing anxiety that a new and dangerous—and enduring—strategic rivalry has begun. If it continues, Russian-American cooperation will give way on many fronts, and the INF Treaty is certain to be among the victims. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, it serves U.S interests better than any alternative. To preserve the treaty, policymakers should learn from the diplomacy that produced it thirty years ago. The Reagan record gives them an excellent checklist for the job ahead.