The INF Treaty Is Dead

On 8th December 1987, Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev of the United States and Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). This was significant as it marked the first time the superpowers had agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals, eliminate an entire category of nuclear weapons, and utilize extensive on-site inspections for verification. Specifically, the treaty required both states to destroy ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges from 300 to 3,300 miles (500 and 5,500 km), their launchers, and associated support structures and equipment. However, despite this indisputable progress in nuclear disarmament, the treaty has now effectively been torn up by both the United States and Russia. Earlier this year the United States, supported by NATO, accused Russia of violating the treaty by deploying a new type of cruise missile, which Moscow has subsequently denied, though evidence seems indisputable. Consequently, as a response to this breach, the United States declared a suspension of obligations under the INF Treaty and formally announced its intention to withdraw from the treaty in six months. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by officially suspending Russia’s treaty obligations as well. These events came to a head on Friday 2nd August when the United States formally withdrew from the INF Treaty. A cornerstone of arms control has seen its demise, and the question now is how will the international system respond? And how will this response affect the future of non-combative strategies? The death of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signals trouble for U.S.-Russia relations, European security, and non-proliferation efforts.

The breakdown of the INF treaty diminishes European security capabilities and is consequently a threat to the preservation of peaceful processes. Most European states assumed that nuclear geopolitics was a relic of the past, but now there is a fear that this could be a catalyst for a new arms race. In my opinion, the ramifications move beyond the historic fears of Europe; the United States can now introduce new ground-based INF systems in Asia that could conceivably be seen as inflammatory by China. This opinion is consolidated by a quote by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on the issue, “the world will lose an invaluable brake on nuclear war. This will likely heighten, not reduce, the threat posed by ballistic missiles… Regardless of what transpires, the parties should avoid destabilizing developments and urgently seek agreement on a new common path for international arms control.” The first half of this statement has unfortunately been proven true, with the Council on Foreign Relations reporting that a new round of nuclear weapons competition is already well underway, driven by the accelerated pace of the technology revolution, rising U.S.-Russia tensions, and China’s military modernization.

The Indo-Pacific region has the potential to be impacted greatly by the collapse of the INF Treaty. China was in no way involved in the treaty, thus allowing it to gradually build up a formidable land-based arsenal of intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles, which provided incentive for the U.S. to leave the treaty as a way of maintaining hegemony in the Pacific. Now that the U.S. is no longer operating under INF constraints it can easily compete with China; according to an article by the Lowy Institute, the U.S. can comfortably outspend Beijing and quickly build up a formidable regional arsenal of new weapons to challenge China. This would have widespread implications on U.S. allies in Asia, as the U.S. will likely seek their assistance to forward-deploy land-based intermediate range and advanced conventional weapons to contain China. The Trump administration raised concerns about China’s missiles, to which Beijing responded by warning that the breakup of the treaty would undermine global security, but also by rejecting calls for China to join an expanded version of the pact. The U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper endorsed the idea of deploying medium-range missiles to the Indo-Pacific region, adding that he would prefer to deploy “a capability sooner rather than later.” This will put Australia in an especially precarious position due to its relationships with the U.S. and China, as it will become increasingly difficult to remain on good terms with both. In the case of Russia, it will be much cheaper for the country to build new intermediate-range missiles to counter China than to build long-range bombers, which it previously would have had to do, under the constraints of the INF Treaty. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, arms control seemed to be redundant when tensions were low, but now that tensions are increasing, disarmament agreements have a role to play in maintaining stability.

Additionally, the deterioration of the treaty weakens non-proliferation efforts: North Korea has expanded its nuclear capabilities; the Iran nuclear agreement has unravelled; and other nuclear powers remain outside arms control regimes.  As well as these concerns, there are experts worried that the U.S. decision to withdraw means that the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) will be next. This treaty caps the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces and expires in 2021, unless both parties choose to extend it. Advocates for arms control warn that the termination of this second pillar of arms control could potentially accelerate a renewed nuclear arms race. For example, NATO is now in the delicate position of bolstering defences against Russian missiles, while at the same time avoiding provocation. Some sources however have a more positive outlook, at least for the immediate future. Former U.S. diplomat Thomas Countryman, who worked on non-proliferation issues, stated that things will not change: “In the short term, there’s no immediate physical change after Friday. The United States and Russia are not going to begin on Saturday deploying hundreds of new missiles.” Another view is that there was little point in adhering to a treaty that Russia was blatantly violating, especially while China had the means to develop its own intermediate-range forces unopposed.

What is clear is that eventually both states saw the treaty as compromising the national interest. However, I would argue that the notion of national interest neglects the interests of the population. The demise of the INF Treaty is grounded in states wishing to exercise power and influence cloaked by  rhetoric of security; if interests really aligned with the well-being of people and a commitment to peaceful processes the treaty would not have been torn up.

Zac Williams