Argument

Trump Accidentally Just Triggered Global Nuclear Proliferation

Before the United States killed it, the INF Treaty didn’t just stem the arms race with Russia—it stopped the spread of nuclear weapons around the world.

An activist with a mask of U.S. President Donald Trump marches with a model of a nuclear rocket during a demonstration against nuclear weapons on Nov. 18, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Adam Berry/Getty Images)
An activist with a mask of U.S. President Donald Trump marches with a model of a nuclear rocket during a demonstration against nuclear weapons on Nov. 18, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

On Feb. 1, the Trump administration made good on its threats and began the official withdrawal process from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and Russia. As others have pointed out, this was a short-sighted decision. By withdrawing from the INF Treaty, the Trump administration has eliminated any consequences of Moscow’s alleged noncompliance, leaving it free to deploy as many intermediate-range missiles as it wants. U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to throw out the rulebook instead of trying to enforce it greases the wheels for a return to U.S.-Russian nuclear arms racing—with potentially dire consequences for international security.

But there is another outcome of the end of INF Treaty that is less examined and no less dangerous: It will undermine global efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that don’t yet have them. As an instrument of arms control, the INF Treaty has done much more than limit the capabilities of the individual parties involved. For over 30 years, it has quietly been a central part of the international nonproliferation regime, too. This collection of treaties, informal agreements, and institutions that keep the spread of nuclear weapons in check is often cast in architectural terms: an edifice held up by pillars built on a weathered but enduring foundation. In reality, the nonproliferation regime is a complex and deeply intertwined network that more resembles a spiderweb: stronger than the sum of its parts but likely to unravel if individual threads start to break.

Perhaps the most important thread in this tapestry is the long-running tradition of close cooperation between Washington and Moscow on nuclear issues. The INF Treaty itself is a product of their joint efforts, as are the 1968 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (commonly known as the NPT), the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, among others. U.S.-Soviet partnership on nonproliferation remained sacrosanct even during the worst moments of the Cold War, in part thanks to regular interaction between Russian and American officials across a host of treaties and other frameworks. As the historical record shows, just talking to one another, almost regardless of outcome, built up trust and personal rapport that kept cooperation going when times got tough.

From this vantage, the INF Treaty’s demise is not just symptomatic of the deep crisis between the two nuclear powers—it is also a contributor to it. Its collapse means the elimination of an official channel for Russian and American interaction at a moment when there are precious few other options. The Special Verification Commission, the pact’s dispute resolution mechanism, convened 30 meetings through the early 2000s but was sorely underutilized in recent years. It would have been the natural setting to address noncompliance allegations—and could have helped to get relations back on track—but this opportunity came off the table when the treaty was scrapped.

The importance of U.S.-Russian relations to nonproliferation means that the end of the INF Treaty will affect other areas of the regime, too. As many experts have observed, New START—now the last bastion of bilateral arms control—is probably the most susceptible to contagion. Set to expire in just two years, this 2010 agreement can be extended for up to five years if both parties agree. Emboldened by its withdrawal from the INF Treaty, however, the Trump administration might pass over this silver bullet for the freedom to pursue maximum flexibility in its military options. If this happens, the nuclear arms race that follows might well cause states that have foregone their own deterrent—such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, or even Germany—to reconsider their decisions. Avoiding this outcome was part of the rationale for negotiating both treaties in the first place.

A development like this would be especially dangerous at a time when there is no legally binding instrument that prohibits nuclear testing. The U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty or, more precisely, the reasons it did so are relevant here, too. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)—which should fill this void—is unenforceable in part because the United States has yet to ratify it. CTBT opponents in Washington often argue that ratification is not in the U.S. interest, however, citing long-debunked stories of Russian covert testing that refuse to die. While the Obama and Trump administrations agree that Russia violated the INF Treaty, scrapping that agreement rather than using the Special Verification Commission to address these allegations (or Russian concerns about U.S. compliance) lends credence to the myth that Moscow is a perennial cheater with whom verification doesn’t work. This story is one that will be hard to un-tell even if a new U.S. administration seeking CTBT ratification is elected in 2020.

Both of these outcomes weaken the nonproliferation regime in and of themselves, but they also stand to do real damage to the credibility of the NPT. The cornerstone of the nonproliferation regime, the NPT lays out a bargain between the treaty’s designated nuclear weapon states, which agree to cease the arms race and pursue disarmament, and states that do not already possess nuclear weapons, which pledge not to acquire them. The validity of this bargain has been under scrutiny for decades, particularly by those who feel that the pace of disarmament has been unacceptably slow. This perception will be reinforced by the unraveling of the INF Treaty, which constitutes not just a plateau in arms control but, in the eyes of many, a step backward.

Similarly, over the 50 years since the NPT was negotiated, its parties have agreed by consensus on clarifications to the obligations of the designated nuclear weapons states. In 1995, for instance, its parties identified “the determined pursuit by the nuclear-weapon States of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally” as a condition for the treaty’s indefinite extension. The INF Treaty’s demise and its related implications for other arms control measures are tangible evidence that these commitments not being fulfilled either—a reality that is unlikely to go unnoticed when the NPT is reviewed in 2019 and 2020. The scrapping of the INF Treaty could lead some observers to conclude that commitments made under the NPT can be ignored, particularly when the political situation isn’t conducive to upholding them.

This conclusion is dangerous, and it’s one that will make for a weaker nonproliferation regime at a time when it can ill afford to be anything but robust. As the West grapples with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the slow unraveling of the Iran nuclear deal, the need to keep pace with potentially destabilizing new technologies, and the weaponization of nontraditional domains such as space and cyberspace, success will require using the full complement of nonproliferation instruments. This necessarily entails both U.S.-Russia engagement and robust arms control, and with the INF Treaty effectively dead, it comes up short on both scores. The sad irony is that filling the gap the treaty leaves behind will take much more political will than preserving it would have, with few obvious gains.

Much of the concern over the end of the INF Treaty has understandably centered on its implications for missile proliferation, the U.S. relationship with NATO, and whether a replacement agreement that includes China can possibly be negotiated. While these are all valid, however, it’s also worth appreciating just how widespread the impact of the end of the treaty is likely to be—particularly with respect to nonproliferation. The international community, experts, and policymakers should start bracing for the ripple effect of its demise. It has the potential to be much more significant—and more pervasive—than they may appreciate.

Sarah Bidgood is a senior research associate and program manager at Middlebury's Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

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