Remember decoupling? It was a common phrase during the Cold War (or should I say first Cold War?). The railway metaphor was used to describe Soviet efforts to exploit American isolationist tendencies to sever the defensive link between Europe and America, leaving Western Europe exposed to the Soviet nuclear arsenal.

The threat is back. It is back in Europe and has opened a new front in Asia. It is nuclear. It is political. It is economic and the current crop in Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang are much more adept at the task their predecessors.

The current debate centres on the latest generation of intermediate-range (INF) nuclear-tipped missiles in Russia and North Korea. These missiles have a range of anywhere from 500 to 1500 miles which means that they are not a direct threat to the American mainland. They do, however, cast a huge nuclear shadow over America’s allies in Europe and Asia.

Why was the decoupling threat treated so seriously by both sides of the Atlantic back in the 1970s and 1980s? Because it was believed to be important that if the Soviets attacked Western Europe with nuclear weapons the United States would respond with equivalent  force, and that the threat of such a response would deter the Soviets . But in order to insure an American response,  it needed to accept that its interests were inextricably linked to the defense of Europe. If American isolationists successfully argued that a Soviet attack could be confined to Europe, than might also argue that the US should refrain a strategic counter attack in order to avoid a doomsday scenario on US soil.

When the Soviets started deploying their highly mobile and virtually invulnerable  SS-20 intermediate range missiles in 1978 it gave them a distinct military advantage. It also raised the possibility of a nuclear war confined to European soil, thus threatening the link across the Atlantic.

At the December 1979   NATO heads of government meeting it was decided to counter the SS-20  with American cruise and Pershing Two missiles based in Britain, Italy, Belgium, West Germany and the Netherlands.  The link was secured, but in the public mind the missile bases—and the countries that hosted them—had become targets for a Soviet nuclear attack. The result was US-Soviet negotiations which led to the 1987 INF Treaty which eliminated all existing  intermediate range missiles in the Soviet Union and Western Europe. 

Enter Vladimir Putin. It is unclear if he suffers from a unique form of Russian paranoia; a post-imperial desire to restore the Russian Empire, delusions of world domination or some combination of the above. What is clear is that his policies – and willingness to use military force—means that Moscow remains a threat to the rest of Europe and that to achieve this aim he is working hard at driving a political and economic wedge between America and Europe. Support for Brexit is part of this strategy. . Nearly ten years ago, the Russians started developing a new generation of intermediate-range weaponry. They deny that they breached the INF Treaty. Technically speaking they are correct. The 1987 Treaty involved only the old American and Soviet arsenals. This failure to mention past, present and future intermediate-range weapons has allowed new technology to take their place; in this case, the more powerful hypersonic  9M 729 missile.

The European members of NATO have responded to the renewed Russian threat by calling on the US to renegotiate the INF Treaty rather than a return to American systems on European soil. They want to avoid being a target. The Trump Administration has rejected this; withdrawn from the INF Treaty and this week tested a new intermediate-range missile which it wants in Europe.  President Trump also said that any new INF Treaty should include China, which he regards as a greater long-term threat than Russia. China has rejected any calls for restrictions on its nuclear arsenal, mainly because it fears that any treaty would freeze them at their current level of 400 warheads compared to 6,500 Russian warheads and 6,185 American.

Then there are the North Koreans who have been testing systems capable of obliterating South Korea and Japan. President Trump says he is unconcerned because the North Korean missiles cannot reach American targets. Besides, he is irked at the cost of keeping 78,000 US troops in Japan and South Korea. Trump’s position on the latest North Korean tests has infuriated Seoul and Tokyo and is a classic case of an isolationist American accepting the nuclear decoupling of Washington from its Asian allies. It also raises the question: Today Asia, tomorrow Europe?

Tom Arms is the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War”. He currently broadcasts on foreign affairs for US radio and writes a weekly column. He is also completing a major work on Anglo-American relations which will be published next year.

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