You may have seen a number of recent headlines talking about an American withdrawal from the INF treaty. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987 is a treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States that helped reverse the terrifying trends of the global nuclear arms race. On February 1st, the Trump administration announced that it would formally leave the treaty within six months. So does this mean that we are about to enter a new nuclear arms race? This week, we’ll examine this treaty and what it could mean for you.
Towards the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons technology was increasingly becoming more compact and sophisticated. At first, nuclear bombs were delivered only by large airplanes, then large missile silos, then smaller submarines. But by the end of the 1980s, technology had evolved to the point where nuclear missiles could be fitted onto much smaller rockets on land-based mobile launchers. Seeing the disastrous potential for escalation, president Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated and signed the INF treaty that would ban the development and possession of all intermediate-range nuclear missiles.
But why only intermediate-range missiles? Well there were already several previous treaties limiting long-range ballistic missiles and bombers such as the SALT I and SALT II treaties. These treaties cut down the number of missiles, but didn’t eliminate them entirely. They also didn’t specify certain new delivery systems like the SS-20 launcher, which can be driven around and easily concealed at a moment’s notice. These missiles work in the same basic way as conventional Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), i.e. the missile is launched high into the air and free falls back down onto the target. But the shorter range and closer proximity to its target means that the time to plan a response is much shorter. In the chaos of potential nuclear war, every second to de-escalate is critical. The INF treaty succeeded in drastically reducing several different weapons systems, but there were serious flaws with its implementation.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that the treaty was only signed between the United States and Russia. Other major nuclear powers like France, Great Britain, and China were not held to the deal and were free to develop these technologies. This devalued the Russian incentive to remain faithful to the deal, since Russia felt that it had placed a limit on itself that few other nations were subject to. Since then, Russia has already tested and deployed a new cruise missile in violation of the agreement. For it’s part, Russia has accused the United States of violating the agreement by deploying a missile defense system in Europe back in 2016. But it’s unclear exactly how this would be in violation of the agreement, since the INF does not ban the use of missile defense systems.
So if nobody was following this deal in 2018, why does it matter? First, the INF is important because it signals America’s intent to defend European allies. Nearly any agreement that helps reduce the dramatic size of the world’s nuclear arsenal is probably a good thing (knowing of course that full disarmament is nearly impossible). Without this treaty in place, Russia could find it much easier to develop these weapons and put pressure on European allies to give in to Russian demands. This makes American allies vulnerable during things like trade negotiations, or could prevent allies from responding to Russian aggression in places like Eastern Europe, Ukraine, or NATO allies. On the American side, this would also free up the United States to develop intermediate-range nuclear weapons for deployment in places very close to the Russian frontier. Such a move would be certain to provoke a destabilizing counter-response from Russia. And as we’ve mentioned before, any destabilizing act is likely to impact the price of everyday consumer goods, or could even trigger a global recession.
There is certainly merit in the argument that it doesn’t make sense to continue an agreement that nobody else is following. But simply walking away from the treaty without attempting to offer any alternative or punitive response can encourage Russia to break additional treaties. Rather than simply walking away, the United States ought to attempt to renegotiate a version of the treaty or deploy sanctions as punishment for treaty violations. After all, what good is a treaty that attempts to discourage bad behavior if the only consequence of breaking the treaty is the unrestricted ability to engage in the same bad behavior? On the face of it, not much is likely to change following the withdrawal from the INF. But the American response to Russia’s violation of the treaty is another missed opportunity to push back against dangerous and destabilizing behavior.