Trump Is Right About the INF

To be worth keeping, a treaty that bans nuclear missiles needs to include all nuclear powers.

U.S. President Donald Trump answers during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump answers during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

This week, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The agreement, Trump has argued, is defunct. For one, Russia has repeatedly violated its rules. Further, the INF Treaty has left China’s arms buildup unchecked, because it has constrained the United States without doing the same for China, which is not a signatory. The announcement sent shockwaves through the military and scientific establishment.

Launched in 1980 by the Carter administration and signed in 1987 by the Reagan administration, the INF Treaty was the result of years of careful negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union. The ambitious treaty aimed to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons delivery systems. Under its terms, both parties were prohibited from testing, producing, or possessing ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km (300 to 3,400 miles). The two parties were also given three years to destroy their existing stockpiles of the weapons.

The INF Treaty has since been hailed as a major success—mostly by Europeans. That’s not surprising. The biggest winners from the treaty have, indeed, been in Europe. After all, the pact never concerned itself with longer-range intercontinental ballistic missiles of the kind that could unleash nuclear Armageddon on U.S. cities. (Longer-range missiles had already been countered effectively with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.) Rather, the treaty focused on the kinds of missiles that the Soviets had deployed in Belarus, Czechoslovakia, and Ukraine to menace Western Europe and that the United States had deployed in Belgium, Italy, and Germany to threaten the Soviet Union right back.

The goal of preventing nuclear strikes in Europe is a worthy one, but Trump’s claims that Russia has repeatedly violated the terms of the INF Treaty are correct. The most notable infraction was the country’s development of the SSC-8 (9M729) missile system, which came to light in 2014. SSC-8s could easily reach Berlin, Prague, or Vienna if launched from Russia’s Dombarovskiy base. But those missiles weren’t the only problem. In fact, the United States has officially declared Russia to be in violation of the INF Treaty in every arms control compliance report it has released since 2014. But each year, it has stopped short of taking any action.

Observers have cautioned that once the United States officially withdraws from the treaty, Russia is legally free from all of its obligations. That’s correct. But it doesn’t matter. Given the country’s repeated violations, Russia already seems to have been liberated from those constraints.

Trump has also pointed out that the INF Treaty never affected the behavior of the United States’ other major nuclear-armed competitor: China. Since the end of World War II, China has maintained a minimal nuclear arsenal and a vague nuclear doctrine. The lack of clarity has given the country greater flexibility to develop and test nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.

In turn, China has developed several intermediate-range weapons, including the Dongfeng-26, which threatens regional and global stability. In doing so, it has not violated international law in any way. Further, although China has traditionally shown constraint when it comes to defense spending, its behavior is changing. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Chinese leaders seem committed to increasing such spending even as its economy slows. Beijing’s official military budget grew at an average of 8.5 percent per year from 2007 through 2016.

The only party that the INF Treaty has even semi-successfully constrained is the United States.

To be clear, the only party that the INF Treaty has even semi-successfully constrained is the United States. To date, the United States has stopped short of fully developing and deploying any banned, intermediate-sized missiles. But it has not abandoned research, and Trump’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review explicitly laid out U.S. intentions to commence development of intermediate-range missiles to counter those of Russia.

In short, the United States signed and abided by a bilateral treaty that it allowed the only other signatory to disregard, year after year. That’s why it is time to scrap the INF Treaty and try something new. Ideally, that would include a revised agreement, negotiated and enforced among all nuclear powers. But even if the Trump administration doesn’t sue for new talks, the end of the INF Treaty probably won’t make that much of a difference. The nuclear weapons arsenals that China, India, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States maintain have always loomed large, whether one country gave up one type of delivery system or not.

Esther Owens is the managing editor for Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs.