U.S. Withdrawal From INF Treaty Signals A Changing Nuclear Order


On Friday, August 2, the U.S. withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). The Treaty prohibits the acquisition of ground launched missiles with a range of 500-1500 kilometers. The move came amidst concerns that Russia was no longer complying with the treaty. President Trump has also raised the possibility of a new treaty that includes both China and Russia. In recent years, China has steadily increased the capability of its short and medium range missiles creating concern in both the U.S. and Russia. However, the decision to withdraw from the Treaty has been met with apprehension within the international community – particularly those allied to the U.S. The change may mark a new era for intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missiles, with fears that the withdrawal will lead to a renewed arms race between multiple world powers.

There have been several prominent figures calling for restraint after the withdrawal. In the BBC, Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres has said that “This will likely heighten, not reduce, the threat posed by ballistic missiles.” Of greatest concern is that Russia and the U.S. will begin to stockpile nuclear weapons.

A number of U.S. officials and some professors have countered that the agreement was ineffective. Andrew Erickson, a professor of strategy in the U.S. Naval War College suggested in the New York Times that “Unilateral constraint was a losing proposition: China developed the world’s foremost force of missiles precisely within the ranges that I.N.F. would prohibit.” NATO also supported the decision to withdraw, “Russia bears sole responsibility for the demise of the Treaty. A situation whereby the United States fully abides by the Treaty, and Russia does not, is not sustainable.”

The U.S. withdrawal, and subsequent death of the INF treaty does seem to be a ‘legitimate’ and logical action as both parties allege that the other has been in violation. But simply withdrawing from the INF Treaty sends the wrong message. It promotes the idea that there will be a return to the nuclear instability of the Cold War. John McLaughlin, professor in the school of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University highlights the seriousness of the withdrawal by stating in The Washington Post, “When it comes to nuclear weapons, just giving up and walking away from an arms-control treaty reverses the wise course of negotiated reductions we have followed for decades.” A better option would have been to open talks with Russia and China while the INF Treaty was still in place. This would have allowed for both countries to renew commitments, include China in the treaty, and increase the scope of the treaty with relation to technological advancements, whilst also maintaining a clear commitment to arms control. According to McLaughlin, withdrawing from the treaty sends the wrong message to aspiring nuclear states, such as Iran and North Korea.

U.S. withdrawal from the INF has been a long time coming. In February, White House officials announced they would begin to withdraw from the treaty, accusing Russia of non-compliance. The Treaty came about in 1987 as both countries began to build up short and intermediate range missiles across Europe. The U.S.S.R. at the time was concerned with technological advancements that could annihilate their second strike capability. The result was an increasingly tense and unstable arms race. However, the Treaty only targets the U.S. and Russia. Recently, China has begun to deploy short and intermediate range missiles that are capable of striking Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and even the U.S. territory of Guam. This has caused particular concern in Russia as it shares a border with China. The result is that both the U.S. and Russia have distinct incentives to renege on the INF Treaty.

The U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty could mark a new era of nuclear instability and insecurity. While technically legitimate, the U.S. decision was conducted brazenly, with little attempt made to renegotiate with Russia or include China in a future deal. This sends the wrong message to aspiring nuclear powers, particularly Iran and North Korea. Further, it comes at a time of increasing instability, and tension between the global powers. Such an act threatens the global nuclear architecture that prevents proliferation and promotes arms control, and in doing so, threatens the peace and security of the globe.