The INF Treaty and Its Grander Implications

By Christine Parthemore and Andy Weber

Last week, the Trump administration announced its intention to withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed by the Reagan and Gorbachev administrations in 1987 to ban ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. These dangerous weapons helped keep Cold War tensions high and increased the tools by which superpower rivals could carry out potential wars (including nuclear warfare) in European territory.

Our countries destroyed 2,692 missiles as the INF Treaty was enforced, significantly enhancing security in Europe and reducing risks for both the United States and Russia.

In recent days, leaders of the Trump administration conveyed to Russia that they plan to provide formal notification of a U.S. withdrawal from the treaty, but stated that they plan to consult with U.S. allies in advance of such notification. In the meantime, the stated decision has drawn bipartisan concern, including from leading Republican Senators. One prominent critique is that an American withdrawal would lead to the United States being blamed for the treaty’s demise, detracting attention from the fact that its strain stems from Russia’s violation of the treaty with its testing and a ground-launched cruise missile of the banned range.

While we don’t yet know the final fate of the INF Treaty, it draws much-needed attention to a few critical issues.

First, an American withdrawal from the INF Treaty would be yet another blow to the international order of agreements, institutions, and norms that has helped improve the international security environment for decades. In recent years, our working group of experts in nuclear affairs, climate change, and other existential security risks found that it is critical not to lose sight of how trends across these fields build on one another.

An end to the INF Treaty must be taken alongside the intended U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to walk back Iran’s nuclear program, and other formative intergovernmental agreements—in addition to events like the blatant use of chemical weapons by Syria, Russia, and North Korea in recent years—to understand what a profound shift the world order is undergoing. We cannot view events like the threat of U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty in isolation, or we risk missing the full story of what a monumental blow to stability it could be.

Second, we desperately need new ideas to shape the future of arms control. Even if the United States makes the wise decision of remaining part of the INF Treaty, Russia may still not come back to compliance. Whatever the fate of INF is, we will soon need new arms control options for this and future administrations to consider, whether those constructs help recover from the scrapping of existing treaties or go on to help build on their foundation if they are maintained.

Arms control options may look quite different for the remainder of this Century from what they have in the past. They will require time to work through details and generate ideas for verifying compliance—areas in which non-governmental organizations can play helpful roles. As Alexandra Bell and Andrew Futter recently observed, it will be critical to empower a new generation of experts to create and explore a range of options that can help form the future of arms control.

One lesson we can take from the INF Treaty regardless of its fate is the importance of designing arms control concepts focused on specific types of nuclear weapons (rather than or in addition to aiming at numerical limits). Options that halt the spread of and eliminate the most destabilizing classes of nuclear weapons will be important tools moving forward. Nuclear weapons that have indistinguishable conventional variants would be a smart focus, as they carry a unique risk of accidental escalation from conventional to nuclear warfare if a recipient mistakenly believes an incoming conventional missile carries a nuclear warhead.

Third, U.S. leaders must take better account of how our nuclear weapons decisions affect America’s allies and others. It is good news that the Trump administration plans consultations with allies before making a final decision. However, after years of strain to many of these relationships, American officials and experts also need exposure to non-official perspectives, which are often more honest representations of their national sentiments.

Luckily, experts in Europe have grown vocal regarding the INF Treaty, before the current U.S. threat of withdrawal and in recent days. Katarzyna Kubiak of the European Leadership Network penned an important exploration of its future last May. Patricia Lewis of Chatham House added an important call for countries outside of the INF Treaty to help communicate that “the rule of law is needed to calm an increasingly troubled world.”

For our part, we plan to advance our work on the INF Treaty, new options in arms control, and other building blocks of preventing nuclear warfare alongside international partners. Next week in Oslo, the Council on Strategic Risks will join the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, Clingendael Institute, and the Toda Peace Institute in launching a dialogue among government and non-governmental experts from NATO, European, and Asian allied and partner countries, the United States, and Russia in exploring the future of arms control. Our long-planned discussion will identify lessons from the INF Treaty and Presidential Nuclear Initiatives in what we plan to be the first in a long and fruitful series of dialogues.

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