The intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty is dead

By Joe Barnes
Bonner Means Baker Fellow


Earlier this month, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. This came as no surprise. The Trump administration had signaled its intent to exit the agreement last October. The move has generated substantial controversy, here and abroad.  Some observers believe that the withdrawal risks prompting another arms race in Europe and East Asia. Others see the exit as a step necessary to address new strategic challenges, especially the military rise of China.

The INF agreement, signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, banned ground-launched ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.  As the name suggests, the treaty focused on nuclear-armed missiles, though it also covered missiles with conventional warheads. (The treaty did not limit air- or sea-based delivery systems.) Over 2500 missiles were eliminated under it. The origins of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty date back to 2013, when the Obama administration concluded that Russia was in breach of the treaty for developing a ground-launched cruise missile system.

Just as importantly, the Trump administration has concluded that U.S. participation in the INF Treaty constrained Washington’s ability to counter China’s military build-up. In many ways, the agreement is an artifact — critics would say a relic — of another era. The risks of a U.S.-Soviet arms race in Europe largely drove the treaty; China — at the time very much a second-tier military power — was never a party.  In recent years, Beijing has developed a large arsenal of ground-based conventional missiles capable of striking U.S. vessels and facilities in East Asia. While the United States retains a substantial number of air- and sea-based missiles capable of responding to this threat, the INF Treaty does limit Washington’s ability to place missiles on land. The Trump administration has declared that it seeks a new, global agreement on intermediate range missiles that would include China. Beijing, unsurprisingly, has rejected the idea.

While NATO members unanimously declared that Russia was in violation of the INF Treaty in 2018, the EU response to the U.S. withdrawal has been, at best, ambiguous. At one level, European countries are simply acknowledging their powerlessness. They are not parties to the INF Treaty, an agreement struck between the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet European countries worry that the end of the INF Treaty could trigger a new arms race in Europe. Such an eventuality, however, will take years to materialize. U.S. plans to develop new intermediate-range missile systems are still in their infancy; these plans face congressional opposition, especially in the House of Representatives. Not least, it is far from clear that any European countries would actually agree to host the missiles.

The same problems arise in the East Asia. China’s neighbors may be wary of China’s military expansion and Beijing’s more assertive stance in the South China Sea. But hosting new U.S. intermediate range missiles will enrage China and ratchet up strains in a region already rife with tensions. Not all of these tensions reflect alarm among China’s neighbors about Beijing’s ambitions. Despite U.S. negotiations with Pyongyang, the Korean Peninsula remains a flashpoint. In addition, simmering differences between long-term U.S. partners Japan and South Korea have boiled over into a nasty trade dispute.

Whatever its other merits, the withdrawal from the INF Treaty does highlight a constant weakness in the Trump administration’s foreign policy: weak alliance management.  Exiting the agreement should have been more closely coordinated with traditional partners in Europe and East Asia who ultimately have a far higher stake in the treaty than the United States. At a minimum, some agreement by allies – however tentative – to host new land-based missiles would have given the withdrawal a clear strategic rationale.  As it is, the exit appears more like a gesture than part of a well-considered long-term plan. This is also an all-too-common characteristic of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, including its approaches to North Korea and NATO.

With the INF Treaty gone and no replacement in sight, the fate of the Russian-U.S. New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) hangs in the balance. Set to expire in 2021, is in many ways a far more consequential treaty. Building on previous agreements dating back to the original START concluded in 1991 between the United States and the Soviet Union, New START was signed in 2010 and came into force in 2011. New START sets limits on deployed nuclear weapons and delivery systems; it also provides for mutual inspections to ensure compliance.  Both President Donald Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton have spoken negatively of the agreement in the past. A final decision by the Trump administration will probably not occur until next year. But arms control experts are worried — and not just by the precedent set by U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty. Trump has long been deeply suspicious of U.S. international agreements which he believes routinely disadvantage the United States. In typical language, he has dismissed New START as a “bad deal” for the United States. In addition, New START was signed by President Obama; Trump appears to take special pleasure in repudiating agreements struck by his predecessor, whether the Paris Accords on climate change or the nuclear deal with Iran.

At an important level, the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty reflects a new era in great power competition.  The “unipolar moment” of U.S.  global dominance that followed the fall of the Soviet moment has passed.  Russia is resurgent; China is flexing its newfound geopolitical muscle. But there few signs that the Trump administration has given substantial thought to how the United States can best protect its interests in a new and challenging international environment.