The INF Treaty Is Dead. Is New START Next?

Experts worry about a new arms race after U.S. withdrawal from nuclear pact.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Lara Seligman
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a press briefing in the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 1. (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a press briefing in the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 1. (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. decision to withdraw from a nuclear arms treaty with Russia that was a cornerstone of European security in the post-Cold War era could erode other arms control agreements even as it enhances Washington’s ability to respond to growing threats from both Russia and China, according to analysts.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday announced the withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, in what was a long-expected decision by President Donald Trump’s administration.

“For years, Russia has violated the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty without remorse,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department. “It does no good to sign an agreement if a party’s not going to comply with it.”

While experts and Western officials broadly agree Russia is violating the treaty, they are split on whether the Trump administration’s decision to scrap it is a good idea. NATO supported the U.S. decision, saying in a statement released shortly after Pompeo’s remarks that Russia “continues to deny its INF Treaty violation, refuses to provide any credible response, and has taken no demonstrable steps toward returning to full and verifiable compliance.”

But some experts fear the exit could trigger a new nuclear arms race with Washington’s former Cold War rival and may jeopardize another critical nuclear arms control agreement: the so-called New START treaty.

“We have to think about what the world looks like with absolutely no constraints on these types of missiles at all,” said Alexandra Bell, an arms control expert with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “Is the security of the world actually improved by Russia having absolutely zero constraints over the ability to produce intermediate-range nuclear missiles? The answer to that is no.”

The INF Treaty, signed in 1987, is a landmark arms control agreement that bars the United States and Russia from having ground-launched cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,000 kilometers (310 to 3,100 miles). It was the first arms control agreement to ban a full class of weapons.

Bell and other proponents of arms control fear that the Trump administration will feel emboldened to scrap other treaties, particularly the New START agreement. Signed in 2011, the strategic arms treaty limits the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads and delivery systems, and it is due to expire in early 2021 unless Washington and Moscow agree to extend it. Most analysts are in agreement that Russia is adhering to the New START treaty.

Some prominent Republican foreign-policy experts, including top Trump aides, have criticized that agreement as one-sided. National Security Advisor John Bolton in a 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed described the treaty as “profoundly misguided,” while Trump in February 2017 called it a “bad deal.”

During his press briefing on Friday, Pompeo dodged a question on the fate of the New START deal but said “we’re endeavoring to do everything we can to ensure that the risks of proliferation that increase in these massively destructive weapons systems is diminished.” (Bell, the arms control expert, noted that Pompeo mixed up the terms arms control and nonproliferation. The former means reducing the number of weapons that currently exist, while the latter refers to preventing future weapons from being created.)

Thomas Countryman, a former career diplomat who served as acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security until January 2017, cited Bolton’s opposition to other international agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, another pact with Russia, which the United States withdrew from in 2002.

“Bolton has the same hostility toward New START historically as he had toward all the other international agreements where he has been the primary assassin,” Countryman said. “You have to be concerned he will welcome any excuse not to extend New START, just as he welcomed this reason to kill the INF Treaty.”

But other experts and U.S. officials say there’s no point adhering to a treaty Russia ignores.

“If there’s an arms race going on, Russia’s off and running, and we’re sitting on the sidelines playing with our shoelaces,” said Matthew Kroenig, a foreign-policy hawk and an expert on nuclear weapons policy at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

As a senior administration official put it during a phone call briefing with reporters on Friday: “Let’s be clear, if there’s an arms race, it is Russia that is starting it.”

Some experts also say the withdrawal could help the United States stave off China’s growing conventional military power in Asia. Since China has never been a signatory of the INF Treaty, it has been able to build up a vast arsenal of nonnuclear weapons, such as the DF-21 “carrier killer,” that now threaten freedom of navigation in the Pacific.

With the United States released from the treaty’s constraints, it could begin to match China’s growing intermediate-range conventional force arsenal. Experts said a U.S. buildup would likely include mobile, ground-launched ballistic missiles operated by the U.S. Army and stationed on islands in the Pacific Ocean.

“China [and] Iran, for that matter, are not bound by the treaty,” said the senior administration official on the phone call with reporters. “We cannot be the only country bound by a treaty.”

Indeed, last year the then-commander of U.S. Pacific Command warned that the United States’ adherence to the INF Treaty has already eroded its lead in the region.

“We are at a disadvantage with regard to China today in the sense that China has ground-based ballistic missiles that threaten our basing in the western Pacific and our ships,” Adm. Harry Harris told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2018. “We have no ground-based capability that can threaten China because of, among other things, our rigid adherence, and rightfully so, to the treaty that we signed on to, the INF Treaty.”

The U.S. Navy’s top officer, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, said he had not discussed the INF Treaty with his Pacific counterparts during a recent trip to the region that included China and Japan, among other stops. He declined to comment on the ramifications of the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty on operations in the region but said most U.S. allies understand the decision.

“I think that most of the allies and partners would realize that you just can’t be the only one to abide by a treaty,” Richardson told reporters at the Pentagon. “That is not a meaningful agreement.”

However, Pranay Vaddi, a former U.S. diplomat who worked on arms control for the State Department, said the United States would be hard-pressed to find allies in Asia willing to house intermediate-range missiles, nuclear or not. “It could be potentially very destabilizing in the region for an ally if they’re hosting U.S. missiles designed to strike deep within China,” said Vaddi, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He also questioned the utility of placing ground-based missiles on tiny patches of land in the Pacific when the U.S. military already has the ability to launch missiles from aircraft, ships, and submarines deployed to the region.

“There’s no ally raising their hand right now saying, ‘We want these,’ but if we do think its an important overall part of our military strategy in Asia … there is the possibility of working with allies to deploy … such missiles,” Kroenig, of the Atlantic Council, said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman