The U.S. Just Withdrew from an Important Nuclear Treaty. What Does it Mean, and Why Should Jews Care?

February 1, 2019Aaron Torop

On February 1, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally announced a six-month notice of a complete withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. This follows President Trump's October 2018 announcement of his intention to withdraw and failed meetings between the U.S. and Russia to salvage the treaty. The European Union, Russia, and members of Congress from both parties criticized this announcement

Why does the INF Treaty Matter?

President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF in 1987 as the Cold War neared its end. (General Secretary Gorbachev has expressed concern over President Trump’s announcement of withdrawal). It was the first arms control agreement that reduced, instead of limited, nuclear weapons, leading to the U.S. and Russia destroying almost 2,700 nuclear missiles. This treaty was also critical in paving the way for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed in 1991 between the U.S. and Soviet Union.  

The INF treaty has been critical in helping the EU and NATO allies feel more secure. Without it, the U.S. and Russia risk entering a Cold War-style arms race to develop these weapons. 

One of the main factors in President Trump’s decision was Russian violations of the treaty. As early as 2014, the U.S. noted possible violations. Last year, the Pentagon reported that Russia had begun deployment of the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile, a clear violation of the INF treaty’s restrictions on ground-based missiles with a reach of 500-5500 kilometers. 

However, leaving the INF will not solve this problem. Withdrawing from the treaty gives the U.S. less leverage to bring Russia back into compliance, and in fact allows Russia to produce and deploy missiles in violation of the INF with greater impunity. It also goes against recommendations made by the U.S. military to use the treaty to pressure Russia and consider other economic and diplomatic means to ensure compliance.  

This decision might also have implications for the New START Treaty, which requires Congressional reauthorization in 2021. Negotiations are already underway for a potential 5-year extension or a newly negotiated treaty. However, these negotiations are off to a rocky start and some are skeptical of the possibilities of success. There is bipartisan support for extending New START; letting this treaty lapse would be detrimental to our shared goal of a world free from nuclear weapons. 

The INF withdrawal also coincides with the first production of new low-yield nuclear weapons that can be launched from submarines. These weapons are less powerful than others in the arsenal, but still more than six times stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Last year in the Nuclear Posture Review, the administration called for three increases in nuclear capabilities, demonstrating their intention to increase the size and capabilities of the U.S.’s stockpile. This is a shift from President Obama, who was prepared to reduce the U.S. nuclear stockpile beyond what START called for. 

Why should we care as Jews?  

In 1989, the URJ passed a resolution that, in part, commended President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev for signing the INF Treaty. It states that “From the day that our prophets first dreamed of the time when nations would convert the swords of war into the plowshares of peace, we have sought ways to avoid conflict even while maintaining our security.” Since the start of the Cold War, the Reform Movement has advocated for a world free from nuclear weapons. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) has similarly “expressed our growing alarm at unchecked nuclear proliferation and expressed our horror at both the dangers and the intolerable waste caused by the nuclear arms race.”  

Moreover, Jewish tradition obliges us to seek peace and ensure that innocent civilians are shielded from the destruction of war. In Deuteronomy, we read that before waging war, we must provide the opportunity to first make peace. Judaism also stipulates that extra caution must be given to avoid harming civilians or creating unnecessary destruction in war. 

In Pirkei Avot we are instructed to “make a fence for the Torah” – that is, to prohibit certain actions not because they are inherently evil, but because they lead toward evil things (1:1). It is with this principle in mind that we are concerned by the stockpiling and development of nuclear weapons, as these actions increase the likelihood of their use. 

We hope that you will join us in expressing concern over this announcement of withdrawal from the INF Treaty. Our withdrawal increases the likelihood that the U.S. and Russia will begin developing and deploying more nuclear warheads, raising the possibility of an arms race that brings the world closer to nuclear war. In our pursuit of rodef shalom, the road to peace, and a world free from nuclear weapons, the preservation of international arms reduction treaties is critical.

Interested in joining the Reform Movement to advocate for a world free from nuclear weapons? Sign up for our email list so you can be among the first to know about opportunities to act.

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