President Trump’s announcement that the United States will pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty bodes ill for the future of arms control. Returning to constraints is possible, but as nuclear competition is unfettered, the path back to arms control will likely involve serious crises that remind countries of nuclear dangers.
It takes a lot of political work to enter such an agreement, and there are a lot of potential consequences for leaving it. Among those consequences could be serious crises that remind countries of the dangers of nuclear competition.
Arms control doesn’t just happen. Countries need to put significant political effort behind negotiating agreements, maintaining verification regimes, and keeping pacts alive as leaders, weapons technology, and the international system change.
While the Trump administration in general and John Bolton in particular ultimately killed the INF, multiple factors contributed to its demise. The first was a general weakening of arms control and nuclear stability created by the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (another landmark Cold War arms control agreement) in 2001. America’s move to lift restraints on missile defense motivated Russia to develop new nuclear weapons designed to defeat U.S. defenses. Reassurances that rogue states like Iran and North Korea are the intended target of U.S. missile defense fall on deaf ears in Moscow, which has long viewed such capabilities as highly destabilizing.
Russia’s decision to deploy missiles that violate the INF Treaty’s range restrictions — which prohibit ground-launched missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km — was another nail in the treaty’s coffin. Russian noncompliance created a straightforward argument for Washington to leave the treaty: If the other side isn’t following the rules, why should we?
Finally, China’s emergence as a major strategic competitor created a strong incentive for Washington to scrap the treaty. China is not bound by the INF and has developed a large and sophisticated ballistic and cruise missile force while America’s hands were tied by the treaty. Advocates of leaving the INF argue that doing so gives the U.S. greater flexibility to respond to China’s growing military power. INF-range missile systems would give the U.S. more military flexibility vis-a-vis China, but an increase in flexibility wouldn’t change the bigger strategic picture in Asia. Furthermore, the U.S. military’s desire to destroy targets deep within Chinese territory exacerbates the risk of a conventional conflict going nuclear. More U.S. options for destroying these targets would heighten these risks.
Once Trump pulls out of the INF, the only remaining significant arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia will be New START, which sets limits on each country’s number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads and launchers. The U.S. and Russia are adhering to New START, but it will expire in early 2021 unless the two agree to extend the treaty. U.S. withdrawal from the INF does not mean that New START extension is doomed, but it will likely make negotiations less likely to succeed. A concerted U.S. effort to extend New START would be a welcome sign that the Trump administration values arms control and nuclear stability, but the death of the INF Treaty is not a good omen.
Bringing arms control back from the brink is possible, but history suggests that the path back to arms control will require going through periods of crisis and tension. The years preceding the INF Treaty, for example, were not a happy period in U.S.-Soviet relations. The early 1980s were characterized by heightened military tensions and deepening Soviet paranoia that the U.S. would launch a nuclear war on short notice. Thankfully, this period came and went without a major escalation, and the INF Treaty was signed in 1987.
The world is no longer divided into two superpower camps, and there are many more nuclear powers that the U.S. must contend with on the international stage. New arms control agreements will have to reflect new political realities and weapons technology to succeed at reducing danger and building trust.
Such agreements will likely not be negotiated during the Trump administration, however. Withdrawal from the INF Treaty, the looming challenge of New START extension, and Trump’s desire to leave the Iran nuclear deal indicate that the administration is hostile toward arms control and nuclear stability. The U.S. could use its resources and influence to make arms control great again, but this won’t happen under the Trump administration.
Eric Gomez is a policy analyst for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.