By Alec Lei PO’21
On October 20, 2018, President Donald Trump announced at a campaign rally in Nevada that the United States would formally withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). This decision was later confirmed by his National Security Advisor, John Bolton, who had flown to Moscow earlier that week to discuss this matter with his Russian counterpart. Within hours, this decision sent shockwaves across the international community, evoking criticisms from EU leaders and the rest of the world. Although Trump’s decision can be argued to be a response to recent developments in Europe and Asia Pacific, the timing and manner in which the decision was reached and delivered could have serious security and diplomatic ramifications for the US and its allies.
The INF was signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. Its aim was to eliminate an entire class of missiles—land-based cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 311 miles and 3,420 miles. Three years later, the United States and the USSR had destroyed almost 2,700 missiles and their launchers. INF was hailed as one of the hallmark treaties of nuclear disarmament and played a significant role in the post-Cold War global security architecture.
Trump cited Russia’s violations of the terms of the Treaty as one reason for US withdrawal. In 2014, the Obama Administration accused Russia of deploying SSC-8, a land-based cruise missile, amidst the crisis in Ukraine. In 2017, the US even instituted sanctions on Russia to pressure it back into compliance, but to no avail. Thus, the perceived security threats from Russia at least in part prompted Trump’s decision to withdraw.
Besides Russia’s violation of the terms of INF, Trump also mentioned the fact that China had not been a signatory to the INF, and thus not bound by the Treaty. As the US-China military balance plays a greater role in Washington’s strategic decisions, China’s attempt to expand its sphere of influence is causing more worries for the US and its allies in the Asia Pacific. Trump argued that had the INF been abolished, the US would have been able to develop its own system to deter China’s expansion.
Despite these underlying concerns, the abruptness of Trump’s decision shocked many. The reaction from NATO leaders signifies that the decision was reached with minimal consultation from EU leaders. Not only does this directly threaten the security balance in Europe, it also creates distrust and drives a further wedge between the US and its NATO allies. Although this decision may help the US’s counter-balancing efforts in Asia, European leaders saw it as the US sacrificing their security to pursue its objectives in Asia Pacific. In the long run, this decision could both weaken the United States’ security and diplomatic ties with the European nations and tarnish the country’s image as a reliable strategic ally for other countries as well.
Moreover, Trump made this decision too concerned with the US’s pursuit of its own objectives rather than Russia’s violation of the treaty terms. As a result, Trump could potentially shift the international blame for ending the Treaty from Russia to US. In as early as 2007, Russia has expressed disapproval of the INF, arguing that it undermines Russia’s military capabilities disproportionately. Since 2014, Russia’s violation of the Treaty was clearly to provoke a US response to scrap the INF. As the Trump Administration finally decides to pull out of the Treaty, this might well be a political gift to Russia, as the US is now seen the party that unilaterally ended this treaty, which undermines its credibility in international politics.
Looking at the bigger picture, the only other remaining arms control agreement between US and Russia, the New START, is due to expire in 2021. In the case that Trump follows through with the withdrawal from INF and that the New START fails to get extended, for the first time in 40 years there will be no agreement in effect restricting the US and Russia from building up their nuclear arsenal. In fact, Russia is already hinting at a new arms race, with the Kremlin spokesperson saying that Russia would be forced also to develop new weapons “to restore balance in this sphere.” US withdrawal from INF may set a dangerous precedent for other nuclear powers to retract their disarmament responsibilities and give aspiring nuclear powers such as North Korea and Iran an excuse to further develop their nuclear capabilities.
It is easy to forget that nuclear weapons pose a dangerous threat. If nuclear weapons are allowed to proliferate or if the world enters a new arms race, the fate of the entire humanity will be threatened. While Trump’s decision to withdrawal from INF is understandable due to the underlying concerns, the response could have been much better formulated to place international blame on Russia and use it as an opportunity to negotiate and pressure other nuclear powers such as China to reach a multilateral treaty in place of INF to keep their nuclear arsenal in check.