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INF Withdrawal Poses More Challenges than Opportunities

Jun 27, 2019
  • Zhao Weibin

    Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Science

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has been praised as a milestone in international arms control and disarmament, as well as one of the Cold War’s most significant arms control achievements and the foundation for the nuclear arms control treaties that followed. It is still highly relevant today. Though the U.S. and Russia have each accused the other of violating the treaty, the INF is far from being at its last gasp. Nonetheless, the U.S. suddenly pulled the plug. It was Washington that made compliance issues public, officially expressed doubts about the treaty’s value, and took the lead in declaring its non-adherence. There are at least three possible reasons for why the Trump administration took such destructive steps.

First, strategic adjustment. Across the U.S. national security strategy, national defense strategy, national military strategy, and its newly-released Indo-Pacific strategy, the Trump administration has defined China as a revisionist power and Russia as a “revitalized malign actor.” Accordingly, the U.S. is vigorously engaged in great power competition. U.S. withdrawal from the INF might help expand its “competitive space.”

Second, hawkish decision-makers. Most members of the national security decision-making team of the Trump administration are hawks, and such hardliners as Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton matter most in Washington. Middle and lower ranks of officials are now mostly “Young Turks” of a similar ideological bent, who tend to be emotional when dealing with international affairs. Thus, a reckless few put the world’s strategic stability at risk.

Third, force reshaping. Rebuilding U.S. deterrence to preserve peace through strength is the Trump administration’s top priority. Early on January 27, 2017, the White House released a Presidential Memorandum on Rebuilding the U.S. Armed Forces, while national defense strategy requires the Department of Defense to build a more lethal Joint Force. Hence abandoning the INF Treaty might help fill some gaps in the U.S. military’s force structure.

Regardless of US motivations, the nullification of the INF Treaty will have a negative impact on global arms control and regional strategic landscape.

First, collapsing mechanisms. As an important bilateral treaty in the field of arms control and disarmament, the INF Treaty is of great significance to making progress on the nuclear disarmament process, promoting international and regional peace, and maintaining global strategic balance and stability. Besides, it remains the model of “trust but verify” arms control, setting a good example for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the follow-on New START Treaty in terms of on-site inspections and numerical limitations for strategic nuclear weapons. For those reasons, some scholars regard the collapse of the INF Treaty as a sign of the end of global arms control and disarmament. For one, the consequences of the INF Treaty’s demise might cascade into other agreements; furthermore, important verification mechanisms might be dismantled. The nuclear nonproliferation regime now faces an even more uncertain future. Some even lamented that the next nuclear nonproliferation review conference might be the last one.

Second, nervous Europe. U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty was an unwelcome surprise for its European allies, because it also frees Russia from some limitations. It could be predicted that Russia will resume its intermediate-range missile development program, and a renewed arms race would be likely to emerge between the U.S. and Russia. For America’s part, it does not seem to be planning to deploy intermediate-range missiles on its own territory. The more likely scenario would be forward deployment to maintain a U.S. military presence. The redeployment of missiles would trigger regional tensions and dangerously undermine strategic stability, since it is enticing to use those missiles offensively in a surprise nuclear attack thanks to their short flight time that reduces an adversary’s ability to react. If this Cold War nightmare reappears, the real victim might be the U.S.-led transatlantic alliance. To make matters worse, the Trump administration seems to have no plan to make Europe safer, no strategy to address missile deployment, and no agenda for mitigating a costly new arms race with Russia.

Third, destabilizing Asia. The U.S. Pacific Command (now the Indo-Pacific Command) has long been backing the idea of deploying intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Asia. Indeed, the absence of the INF Treaty would provide additional options to counter China’s existing missile capabilities, complicate its decision making, and impose costs by forcing the People’s Liberation Army to spend money on expensive missile defense systems, because such a deployment would place China’s political decision-making and military command centers, as well as many of its important military installations, within the range of U.S. missiles. Sooner or later, the Pentagon may start expanding its intermediate-range systems to ensure U.S. “escalation dominance.” In addition, U.S. withdrawal gives Washington free rein to threaten North Korea. Furthermore, this move will probably exacerbate missile proliferation in Asia, with the U.S. acquiescing to countries such as Japan and Australia acquiring their own cruise missiles.

But there are still some opportunities for the recovery of the INF Treaty, as fiscal and political limitations as well as technical necessities might delay its termination.

First, fiscal limitations. A renewed arms race will lead to a fiscal calamity. The U.S. nuclear weapons modernization budget is projected to cost $494 billion between 2019 and 2028, with some estimates putting the thirty-year cost at $1.7 trillion, even before adding in new intermediate-range missiles.

Second, political limitations. Many European and Asian allies may find it politically untenable to host U.S. intermediate-range missiles, particularly if armed with nuclear warheads. Even if they are deployed, their use may be politically undesirable or operationally restricted. In addition, the U.S. military presence may be a source of friction for some coalition partners and present security challenges that threaten operational objectives.

Third, technical necessities. Washington and Moscow are not facing unprecedented security threats that would require the immediate deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

There is still one month left to explore some diplomatic opportunities. After all, an imperfect treaty is better than none at all.

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