THE INF TREATY IN THE NEWS
Why, suddenly, a shot-across-the-bow announcement from the President that the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty? I say “suddenly” because the INF Treaty has been a bone of contention since at least 2012 when President Obama certified that Russia was in violation. Yet neither Obama nor Trump, until now, felt it required action.
I can think of two possible reasons—but first, a quick bit of background.
The INF Treaty was signed by the US and Soviet Union in 1987 and became effective in 1988. It eliminated all nuclear and conventional missiles and their launchers with ranges below 3,420 miles—sea-launched missiles were not included. British and French weapons were also not included.
The treaty grew out of the Soviet deployment, in 1977, of mobile-launched ballistic missiles with a range of just under the SALT II Treaty limit of 3,400 miles. Western European leaders raised concerns these weapons made them vulnerable to attack, and a strategy of negotiations backed up by the threat of deploying new NATO missile launchers across Europe was adopted.
Many proposals and even more rounds of negotiation ensued. Finally, in 1986, Soviet president Gorbachev proposed the total elimination of all nuclear weapons by the year 2000; the US countered with a phased reduction of INF missiles in Europe and Asia, to zero by 1989. It happened. The US and Soviet Union destroyed more than 2,500 weapons between them by June 1, 1991.
Ten years later, in 2001, President George W Bush announced the United States would unilaterally withdraw from a different treaty, the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty, because the US wanted to deploy a missile defense system—a program already underway in the US.
Six years after that, President Putin declared the INF Treaty no longer served Russia’s interest, linking a decision to pull out to US action on the missile defense system.
In 2012, President Obama accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty when it tested a new cruise missile. Russia has argued that the US bases in Poland and Romania that can launch Tomahawk missiles is a violation of the Treaty; Russia also notes the US use of drones is a violation of the Treaty.
And it must be noted that the US has embarked on a $1.7 trillion dollar plan to modernize its nuclear weapons stockpile, production infrastructure, and delivery vehicles including low-yield weapons and new missiles systems which inject new concerns into the security plans of other countries. Modernization means weapons labs can hope for almost unlimited funding and free rein to design new nuclear threats.
WHY BRING IT UP NOW?
The likeliest answer is two words: John Bolton. Seven years ago, voices in conservative circles raised concerns about China’s intermediate-range nuclear forces which are not included in the bilateral INF Treaty between the US and Russia. President Trump has included this concern in his announcement. It is possible that his declaration is an attempt to get China to the arms control table.
The ascension of Bolton, a hard-right hawk who has never seemed to mind the idea of a nuclear arms race, opened the door for the advancement of this policy idea which had failed to get traction in the Obama years.
The flaw in this attempt is simple: China has no incentive to come to the table, and to do so now, when the US and Russia hold a massive advantage over China in total nuclear weapons (an estimated 1,500 each compared to China’s 300), would erase any leverage China might have to demand further US and Russian reductions.
The other possible explanation for the timing of Trump’s announcement reflects the ongoing strategy of the Administration to create and advance distractions at times of stress in order to control the media which, for the most part, is happy to play its part. Headlines about an arcane but important nuclear weapons treaty push the Mueller investigation off the “breaking news” newsfeed of TV cable media programs and play into the pre-election Republican strategy of stoking fears of all kinds in the electorate as voters head to the polls.
It seems to me that the answer to “Why now?” is likely a combination of the two options—a policy strategy the right-wing has loved for years is being pushed at a moment when a good distraction is helpful to the wider cause.
WHAT SHOULD WE SAY?
First, arms control treaties are, as a rule, good. It is difficult in the context of the existential threat of nuclear weapons—the arsenals of the US and Russia, if unleashed, would kill hundreds of millions of people in one afternoon and render the earth almost completely uninhabitable within a decade—to make a relative judgment about intermediate threats.
On the other hand, any instrument that constrains the nuclear powers is a good thing. Treaties such as the INF serve a purpose. In addition to getting rid of missiles and launchers back in 1991, the treaty also provided verification and inspection protocols which require communication and cooperation among the adversarial powers—this is a good thing.
At the very least, the INF Treaty serves a good purpose if only in the “things not getting worse” category.
In the decades since its passage, actions on both the US and Russian side have undermined confidence in the treaty—technological advances that were unforeseen thirty years ago challenge the security assurances the treaty was meant to provide.
One possible positive outcome of the Trump administration’s declaration could be a new round of negotiations about security that addresses the issues raised back in 1977 in today’s context. In the meantime, the positive elements of the INF should not be abandoned by either side.
China should be heard. Welcomed to the table if they decide to participate. Should they decline to join the conversation until the US and Russia reduce their stockpiles to relatively parity—around 500 warheads and delivery systems, Russia and the US should listen carefully. Many experts in both countries believe such nuclear force levels are achievable with no reduction in security.
Trump’s initiative, regardless of timing or intent, could have unintended, positive consequences. Republican presidents have been successful in the past in advancing arms control agendas, and nuclear abolitionists can support those efforts as steps on the way to zero.
SO — TALK ABOUT IT
The 1988 INF Treaty grew out of a concern raised 10 years earlier. Before it was finalized, it had sparked conversations between US and Soviet leaders that included proposals for complete nuclear disarmament with an actual target date!
Any effort to rework the INF Treaty should address security concerns of Russia and Europe and should consider radical but achievable proposals—like the closure of NATO nuclear-equipped bases in Germany, Turkey, Netherlands, Belgium and Italy matched by Russian actions to reduce the ten-minute threat posed by current Russian missile systems.
If, in the course of these discussions, other arms control or disarmament proposals arise, they should be considered in the context of the global desire to eliminate all nuclear threats reflected in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons approved by 122 countries at the United Nations in 2017. That Treaty is currently making its way through the ratification and accession processes in dozens of countries.
While the negotiations happen, stability is of critical importance—intemperate language or actions should be avoided on all sides. The issue of nuclear weapons and global security is too important to play politics with.