Col. Larry Wilkerson discusses the meaning of the Trump administration’s abandonment of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and how this move has contributed to a wholesale dismantling of the nuclear weapons control system. This might be an opportunity to restart, deepen, and broaden the framework, says Wilkerson

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Baltimore.

Last Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. is formally withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces, or INF, treaty. The treaty had been in effect since 1987, when then-president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed it. It was an agreement to completely eliminate all nuclear missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Secretary Mike Pompeo justified the U.S. withdrawal as follows.

MIKE POMPEO: The United States has gone to tremendous lengths to preserve this agreement and it to ensure security for our people, our allies, and our partners. We have raised Russia’s non-compliance with Russian officials, including at the highest levels of government, more than 30 times, yet Russia continues to deny that its missile system is non-compliant and violates the treaty. We provided Russia an ample window of time to mend its ways, and for Russia to honor its commitment. Russia has refused to take any steps to return real and verifiable compliance over these 60 days. The United States will therefore suspend its obligations under the new treaty, effective February 2.

GREG WILPERT: Russia immediately followed suit on Saturday, saying that in reaction to the U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty it would begin the development of new intermediate range nuclear weapons of its own. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov presented the Russian view of the treaty like this.

SERGEI RYABKOV: The Americans don’t want to acknowledge their violations in three aspects. Let us also quit. However, we don’t act this way. We think that the agreement is essential. It’s within the interests of our security and European security.

GREG WILPERT: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said that his government is open to reopening negotiations about the treaty, but that the initiative would have to come from the United States.

Joining me now to discuss the implications of the IMF treaty’s demise is Colonel Larry Wilkinson. He is a retired U.S. Colonel and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Thanks for joining us again, Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: So what would you say is the most significant consequence of the scrapping of the INF treaty?

LARRY WILKERSON: I think the statement was just given is, for all its purposes, is fairly accurate. I’m not plugged into the intelligence community anymore, but I am plugged into alternatives to it, if you will, on the outside. And I have studied the Russians for a long time. I think it’s probably accurate.

And I liked the statement that–was it the deputy foreign minister? Whoever you quoted there, or whoever spoke, I like that statement. He’s coming from a–how shall I say it, we do the same thing–he’s coming from a propagandistic background, of course. But I like what he said. That’s exactly what we need to do. And that may be what’s motivating Vladimir Putin, to a certain extent, is that he really does want to sit down with the president the United States and others, eventually, and effect some sort of new nuclear arms control regime. Because let’s face it, from the nonproliferation treaty, which I fear is becoming shattered more and more every day, to the whole series of arms control events that we’ve had, mostly during the Cold War, to control not only nuclear weapons but arms in general, conventional arms, too, are pretty much in disarray right now.

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So his recommendation is a solid recommendation. We do need to sit down–and I wouldn’t just limit this to Russia and the United States. Maybe initially, because that’s what Putin is shooting for, and you’ve got to give him something. I want to sit down eventually, and I’d want the talks with Russia to lead to, a gathering of all the nuclear powers, to include the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea, and Israel. I want all the nuclear powers to sit down and begin a new and fresh dialogue over what we’re going to do as a human race, and as states representing that race, to prevent what is one of the most dangerous developments in the post-Cold War era. And that is these different approaches to nuclear weapons, not the least of which is the U.S. approach, spending all the money we’re going to spend over the next decade or so, reenergizing the nuclear weapons complex, making things even more dangerous.

We need to sit down. We need to talk. We do not need to abandon arms control. Indeed, we need to deepen it, widen it, broaden it, and bring everyone into it.

GREG WILPERT: I actually want to get back to that point in a moment. But first I’m just wondering, it seems like abandoning this treaty would actually–is actually deepening the divide between Europe and the United States. After all, Europe remains the most likely theater for the use of intermediate range forces, nuclear forces. What are your thoughts on these divisions among these longtime allies?

LARRY WILKERSON: I can see in the Russian doctrine developed over the last few years a rationale for what they have done. They see the advantage of NATO forces in precision guided munitions, conventional munitions, to be far in advance of what they would like it to be. And so they’re going to make up for that advantage of the NATO powers with small yield nuclear weapons shot at shorter ranges–as you implied, in Europe.

I can understand the military rationale for that. But at the same time I can also understand that China’s not in this INF treaty, India’s not in this INF treaty. Others who have the capacity to, and indeed some have built intermediate nuclear ranged forces, China being most prominent, principally to protect their domain in the South China Sea. We need to have a new arms control process, an entirely new process. And saying U.S. withdrawal from the treaty, or Russian withdrawal from the treaty, or talking about the treaty in isolated terms really makes no sense anymore. We really do need to start a whole new process, and seriously.

GREG WILPERT: Well, the Trump administration actually used that as one of its main arguments for abrogating the treaty, saying that China was not part of the INF treaty, and therefore it didn’t make sense. I mean, I think at one point back in October, National Security Adviser John Bolton even said something like it was a bilateral treaty for a multilateral world, or something like that. Which is a little bit strange, considering that the Trump administration usually prefers bilateralism over multilateralism. But do you think that China’s nonparticipation, and also India’s, was actually a good reason for abandoning the INF treaty?

LARRY WILKERSON: I think, as I said before, one of the reasons that we and the Russians need to sit down outside of this excuse to sit down is just that, that we need to talk about far more wide a range of issues, very difficult issues, ranging from Syria to Ukraine to you name it, as well as talk about arms control. I think it’s a great reason for Donald Trump to overcome his political inhibitions, caused mostly by domestic politics, now–one wonders if those domestic politics are ever going to reveal anything that might be incriminatory, or might be serious for the President, but at present they seem to be at least embroiling him–and overcome those constraints and sit down and talk, because Moscow is someone to whom we need to talk.

That’s the principal motivation that I think we ought to have about it; not just arms control, but other issues, too. And as I said, I think Putin may be reaching for the sort of meeting that he keeps talking about for the very reasons I just said; that he realizes, despite our disparagement of him and so forth, and some of it’s deserved, that he needs to sit down with us and we need to talk, because this is very dangerous, what we’re doing. We’re planning to spend over a trillion dollars, about half of it in the next few years, decade or so, on things that we probably do not need, just as we were going to spend all that money to deploy GLCMs, ground launch cruise missiles, and Pershings, and such, to Europe with Ronald Reagan, who used that as leverage to get the INF treaty in the first place, to ban the first class, whole class, of nuclear missiles by arms control agreements.

We need to do something like that again. And not just INF missiles, all the missiles. Some of the things we’re going to do over the next few years just don’t make any sense. In fiscal sense they don’t make any sense, unless you’re just saying we’ve got to keep the nuclear energy part of the military-industrial complex alive, and I’m not for that. Not to the extent that they’re talking about. And they don’t make any sense from the specific weapons that we’re talking about developing, unless we’re going back into a Hobbesian world vis a vis nuclear weapons where it’s who can build the most the fastest, and eventually we’re going to have a slugout between us; a slugout that will probably do as much damage, if not more, than the climate crisis rolling down the tracks at us. We do not need these existential crises in the world.

GREG WILPERT: Actually, I want to turn to one of the specific new nuclear weapon systems; that is, over the short range nuclear missiles. The Trump administration has made it clear that it is moving forward with the development of so-called low yield short range nuclear missiles, the W76-2, which presumably has a smaller yield than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. They’ve been known also as tactical nuclear weapons. What are your thoughts on this move to develop those weapons?

LARRY WILKERSON: I’ve been around these discussions for a long time as a military professional, and as a diplomat. I’ve seen them in all their manifestations, types, degree, countries involved, and so forth and so on with regard to nuclear weapons and the owners thereof. And it just makes no sense to start talking as if nuclear weapons have a utility other than deterrence. They have no warfighting utility, no matter how small you make them.

If the discussions we’ve had with other countries, like Pakistan, India, China, and so forth hold any lessons for us, if our own experience with nuclear weapons holds any lessons for us, including the many scholars who debated nuclear weapons over the past half century-plus, those lessons say you do not want to use these weapons in actual warfare. You do not want to use them. I don’t care what their yield is. Once you start using nuclear weapons an escalation cycle will inevitably begin, and you will be using more and more of them. This is not something where you shoot a few off and say, as the Indians did in 2002, we’ll stop there. Of course, when we see all the damage we’ve done, and everything’s burning from one point of Islamabad to one point in New Delhi and so forth, then we’ll stop. No, that’s not the way human behavior works. What you’ll do is shoot more at them, they’ll shoot more at you, you’ll shoot more at them. And you wind up–I don’t care how small a yield you start with–you will wind up with a nuclear exchange that probably will be life threatening on this planet. Daniel Ellsberg has spoken of this eloquently. I think he’s right. We do not need to go here.

GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, we’re going to leave it there for now. I’m speaking to Colonel Larry Wilkerson, professor at the College of William and Mary. Thanks again, Larry, for having joined us today.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me on The Real News.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

Lawrence Wilkerson

Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.