On Oct. 20th, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia. The treaty banned missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers and reduced the arsenals of its constituents by a total of 2,692 missiles by 1991. It was a groundbreaking initiative for both Reagan and Gorbachev in the final years of the Cold War.
However, the U.S. has issued repeated allegations since July 2014 that Russia is not in compliance with the treaty. On Dec. 8, 2017, the State Department said in a statement that while the U.S. would continue to pursue diplomatic solutions with Russia, it would resume research and development on its military options until Russia reverted to compliance.
Russian treaty violations aside, the notion that the INF is not in the best interest of the United States is far from new. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton argued in favor of adding signatories to the INF treaty or scrapping it entirely as early as 2011.
Northwestern professor Jordan Gans-Morse was not particularly surprised by Trump’s announcement.
“Without China being party to the treaty, they’re basically free to build whatever type of intermediate range missiles they like,” Gans-Morse said.
Gans-Morse also raised the possibility of the United States taking a more aggressive stance on North Korea.
“There’s some discussion that if you’re not held by this treaty, you could really put shorter range nuclear missiles right in front of North Korea and pressure them into being more compliant,” Gans-Morse said.
This would eliminate the possibility of leveraging intercontinental missiles to deter North Korea, which Gans-Morse said is “usually considered an escalation of warfare.”
But even the precautionary reasoning behind U.S. withdrawal does not eliminate the possible security threat it poses.
“I’d be surprised if it’s the type of arms race that we saw in the Cold War where we’re talking about building up tens of thousands of nuclear weapons,” Gans-Morse said. “But are we going to see some sort of increase in terms of trying to build at least more highly technical weapons, like these hypersonic weapons that are being talked about? That seems increasingly likely.”
Perhaps the danger in U.S. withdrawal from the INF is greater than its immediate implications.
The INF treaty was part of a larger framework of arms control and arms reduction implemented at the end of the Cold War era. This framework was then expanded under Obama with the new START treaty, which defined aggregate limits on nuclear warheads, launchers, and deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers. However, we entered this treaty in 2011, and it will last only ten years.
“Most people – especially the older generation that was involved in creating this whole framework – seem really alarmed that nobody seems to really mind if there’s a complete lack of regulation of arms control and arms reduction within the next couple of years,” Gans-Morse said.
But did the United States have options? After all, Russia was not the only one accused of violating the INF; it also accused the United States of non-compliance on account of a missile defense launch system in Europe.
The policy alternatives for the United States ultimately depend on what the Trump administration considers the most immediate threat.
“There was another option, which would be bring up more countries into the treaty,” Gans-Morse said. “Or if really what you care about is trying to get Russian compliance, give them more options to do so and once they haven’t, then pull out.”
Even if the United States was too constrained by the INF treaty, its withdrawal still sends a stark message to the international community: What is the next step for global arms control and arms reduction?
Or rather, will there be a next step?