This is not the first time President Trump has torn up an international agreement.
But his decision to withdraw from the long-standing Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia is a milestone – and a disturbing one. After all, this is the treaty that helped bring the Cold War to a close.
It was signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to ban a dangerous new generation of intermediate and short-range weapons with a range of between 300 and 3,400 miles.
Launched from trucks on either side of the Iron Curtain, these weapons were hard for the enemy to find and destroy. More to the point, they introduced the terrifying idea of ‘small’ and more frequent nuclear conflicts.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the long-standing Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia is a milestone – and a disturbing one
There is no doubting that the INF treaty made the world a safer place. It was signed at a time when the world had 65,000 nuclear warheads, mostly held by America and the then Soviet Union. By the 1990s, the total was reduced to 17,000.
For decades, the successors to Reagan and Gorbachev tried to continue the spirit of co-operation – until the 45th President arrived at the White House.
Trump has told the world that he is withdrawing because Russia – the only other signatory to the treaty – has broken its terms by illegally developing a new land-based cruise missile. The Russians displayed it in public last week.
But his claims are bogus and hypocritical. The US has itself deployed new Aegis and Patriot missiles to Poland and Romania.
America says these missiles are ‘defensive’; Russia replies that they could be made ‘offensive’ very quickly.
And what is Russian president Vladimir Putin to make of the vast fleet of armed drones deployed by America around the world? These weapons didn’t even exist when the INF treaty was concluded and aren’t covered.
Like Russia, America is happily refurbishing its arsenal of nuclear missiles, a 30-year programme that includes new warheads with half the explosive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The truth is that Trump is withdrawing not because Russia has behaved badly, but because he wants to destroy the INF treaty altogether. Why? Because it is inconvenient.
Trump hates all treaties – civil or military – which constrain America’s power to do what it likes.
He has already done more damage to the cohesion of Nato than at any time in its history by rowing with Europe over its contributions, and he is now shaking the foundations of world trade with a series of tariff wars.
It is the same hatred of binding agreements that lies behind Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran.
No one outside the White House believes that Iran has done anything wrong.
American intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency certified 13 times in succession that Iran was adhering to the spirit and letter of the deal. Trump responded by telling his own spies to ‘go back to school’.
There is another, more specific, motive, too, behind Trump’s actions – and that motive is China, a country he truly fears.
A newcomer to superpower status, China is not party to agreements reached in the 1980s.
So it has been free to quietly develop a range of missiles – some hypersonic, greatly exceeding the speed of sound – and satellite-based weapons which could ‘neutralise’ American carrier fleets in the Western Pacific. The Chinese are masters of cyber warfare, too.
Yet the INF Treaty has served to restrict America’s military reaction. It prevents Trump from deploying shorter-range missiles anywhere near Russia’s Pacific coast – and that means the US cannot hit China with such weapons, either.
This, then, is the real reason Trump has ripped up a treaty the Russians are, in fact, willing to renegotiate.
Trump has repeatedly attacked China and its ambitions. He has accused his predecessor Barack Obama of being ‘impotent’ about the South China Sea where China has ignored the claims of its neighbours and created a series of militarised artificial islands.
China replies that it is no threat to America and that, preferring to work with other powers and world institutions, it represents caution and stability in a turbulent world.
But Trump is determined to take on the Red Dragon.
After all, the American elite dreads the idea that an authoritarian Communist regime with vast and growing financial power has found ways to check their own global dominance. China’s economic expansion through its ‘belt and road’ policy of investing in poorer nations has been astounding.
Even before the crash, China had overtaken America as the world’s leading manufacturer and, judged by purchasing power, it is already the biggest economy in the world.
It was China, not America, that effectively saved the West in the post-crash years by investing in the global economy. China’s central bank has a staggering $3.5 trillion of foreign currency reserves.
China is making huge strides in soft power, too. Growing numbers of bright students from Africa and Asia prefer to study there rather than in the West.
There is another, more specific, motive, too, behind Trump’s actions – and that motive is China, a country he truly fears (Pictured middle, Chinese President Xi Jinping)
Trump is particularly keen to inhibit China’s galloping technological prowess in fields ranging from electric vehicles to super-computers. And that is why he would like to force China to divert its industrial investment into a vastly increased – and draining – rate of military spending, where America currently enjoys a huge advantage.
America’s defence budget equals that of the next seven countries combined.
The effect on the rest of the world, meanwhile, is deeply concerning. We can see all too clearly where a renewed arms race will end.
Putin’s immediate response to America’s withdrawal was a promise to build new missiles, and most expect him to keep his word. How will other countries with such weapons, including India and Pakistan, react?
It has been American policy since Nixon visited Mao to keep Russia and China apart.
Yet presidents Putin and Xi Jinping are already working closely and that co-operation will certainly accelerate now.
In fact, they enjoy the warmest relationship of any Chinese or Russian leaders since the 1950s – as close as ‘lips and teeth’ as the Chinese say.
Their armed forces have begun joint exercises and they already collaborate in Syria and Afghanistan. Neither Beijing nor Moscow will be constrained or intimidated by a volatile blowhard in the White House.
Is the Pentagon’s $1.2 trillion (£916 billion) investment in new weaponry a sign that American minds might be turning to the prospects of a ‘controlled’ nuclear war at some point?
It is a horrific thought, but with the ultra-hawkish John Bolton by Trump’s side as National Security Adviser, who would bet against it?
Meanwhile, another major treaty is coming up for renewal in 2021 – NewStart, which limits the US and Russian arsenals to 6,500 strategic warheads and missiles each.
If a re-elected Trump were to destroy that agreement, too, then we would truly be heading back to a new Cold War – an era in which mass destruction is but a push of a button away.