The INF Treaty and the crises of arms control

By Zia Mian | October 24, 2018

An anti-nuclear weapons protest march, Oxford, England, 1980. Photo credit: Kim TraynorAn anti-nuclear weapons protest march, Oxford, England, 1980. Photo credit: Kim Traynor

The decision by the Trump Administration to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is causing concern and rightly so. Upon reflection, arms control crises are not an exception but the rule. Some of the blame can be laid at the door of generations of American politicians, strategists, military planners and weapon builders, and their advocates ideologically opposed to limiting US military power, wary of treaties and international institutions, and seeking to sustain and expand dominance. Another part of the problem is the inherent contradictions in the project of arms control as a way to control the threat of nuclear war.

The INF withdrawal is part of a pattern. It is not the first nuclear treaty the US has terminated; at the end of 2001 the United States walked out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty it had signed with the Soviet Union in 1972. For President George Bush, pulling out of the treaty reflected a judgment that 30 years after the treaty had been signed we were living “at a much different time, in a vastly different world.”

The undoing of the ABM Treaty showed the importance some US policy makers attached to changing circumstances for assessing the value of superpower bilateral arms control. Ten years after the end of the Soviet Union, there was no more fear of a superpower challenger. As public concern moved on, there was no longer a political need to use arms control to demonstrate restraint and responsibility in the face of domestic and international opinion mobilized to protest the danger of nuclear war.

The US decision to terminate the INF Treaty also comes about 30 years after that treaty was signed, in 1987. Again the reason is that for those in power in Washington, the circumstances have changed. The December 2017 Trump Administration National Security Strategy argued that after the Cold War “America emerged as the lone superpower with enormous advantages and momentum in the world” but now it faces “growing political, economic, and military competitions …[as] China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” The goal now is demonstrate United States primacy by nuclear arms racing; in Trump’s words “we have more money than anybody else, by far. We’ll build it up. … Until they get smart, there will be nobody that’s going to be even close to us.” Left unsaid is the likely legacy of such an arms race in terms of continuing commitments to nuclear weapons, enduring narratives of hostility and threat, and lost opportunities.

The logic of changed circumstances may undo yet one more 30 year long arms control process. The series of US-Soviet/Russian agreements to reduce strategic weapons, beginning in 1991 with START I, may end in 2021 with the expiration of the New START treaty. Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton has described New START as “profoundly misguided” since it imposes “outmoded Cold War limits on weapons launchers” that “cripple America’s long-range conventional warhead delivery capabilities, while also severely constraining our nuclear flexibility” and failing to reflect “our global interests and alliances.”.

Arms control has not been abandoned, however. Today the goal of arms control is used by Donald Trump and others to justify building new US nuclear weapons. Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress in February 2018 that he supported plans for new US nuclear-armed submarine-launched cruise missiles because “I want to make sure that our negotiators have something to negotiate with” in talks with Russia on the INF Treaty, and “[a]t the same time, we have options if Russia continues to go down this path.” This suggests parity in kinds of nuclear weapons (and numbers of nuclear weapons) is a necessary or worthwhile end in itself, when instead it is strategic window-dressing for a crude politics of competition.

All of this makes sense if one pays attention to what arms control was always about. Arms control, strategist Thomas Schelling observed in 1960, was “designed to preserve a nuclear striking power,” and it was “an open question whether we ought to be negotiating with our enemies for more arms, less arms, different kinds of arms, or arrangements superimposed on existing armaments.” Given this foundation, it is understandable that nuclear arms control arrangements are constantly under challenge by those seeking fewer limits on nuclear weapons, a build-up in military capabilities, strategic advantage, and failing that balance, a hedge as political and technological circumstances change.

It is not only this aspect of the political structure of Cold War style bilateral nuclear arms control that is a challenge to hopes for international peace and security. The larger step-by-step agenda for curbing nuclear dangers began to drift as Cold War pressures ebbed. The 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is still not in force after more twenty years. Despite a mandate in 1993 from the United Nations, the talks on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty to ban production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons have not started. There have been no talks on a Treaty on the No-First-Use of Nuclear Weapons despite a draft text presented by China in January 1994 to the United States, Russia, Britain, and France. Now the only steps seem to be steps side-ways or backwards.

The recurring crises of arms control teach that managing and ending nuclear weapons risks is too important to be left to the nuclear weapon states, just as the world learned that war is too important to be left to generals. Accepting the need to face the world as it is and the logic of changed circumstances leads in another direction, one that does not involve accepting the dominance and impunity of nuclear states and the continued existence of nuclear weapons.

There is opportunity now for new kinds of initiatives and making of common cause by non-weapon states, together with social movements from inside and outside the weapon states, to confront the threat from new nuclear weapons, the sharpening of nuclear-armed great power rivalry, and arms racing. Three important players in such an effort are the United Nations, the European Union, and the countries of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. They will find public support in the United States in the resistance to Trump and in the persistent peace groups and anti-nuclear activists who are part of the networks once inspired and led by Randy Forsberg in the 1980s in the Nuclear Freeze movement to end the arms race. Across Europe, there are still many who were involved in the mass protests of the 1980s against US and Soviet nuclear weapons. They also may find allies in the democracy movement struggling against Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia.

As the political structure that helps order the international community and pursue global peace and security, the United Nations can take a more active role. The Secretary-General should take up the INF Treaty dispute and the larger crisis of arms control and exercise his authority “to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” The United Nations Security Council Military Staff Committee could be charged to assess and rule on the INF violations and other nuclear arms control treaty issues under its mandate to “advise and assist the Security Council on all questions relating to the Security Council’s military requirements for the maintenance of international peace and security, the employment and command of forces placed at its disposal, the regulation of armaments, and possible disarmament.”

Having emerged after the Cold War, the European Union is a new force international affairs. It has responded to the US announcement terminating the INF Treaty by noting, “While we expect the Russian Federation to address serious concerns regarding its compliance with the INF Treaty in a substantial and transparent way, we also expect the United States to consider the consequences of its possible withdrawal from the INF on its own security, [and] on the security of its allies and of the whole world. The world doesn’t need a new arms race that would benefit no one and on the contrary would bring even more instability.” The EU must do a lot more.

The Soviet and American nuclear weapons that were withdrawn from Europe under the INF Treaty had been intended to wage nuclear war in the European “theater.” Millions of Europeans refused to consent to their home being a battleground for the United States and Soviet Union. Today, European citizens and the European Union should insist on being heard in Washington and Moscow on the INF Treaty issue. There also needs to be positive European alternative to being trapped in the US-Russian nuclear contest. This could be the pursuit of a European Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, which could link to broader efforts for delegitimizing nuclear weapons and advancing nuclear disarmament.

Finally, there is the group of 122 countries that in 2017 agreed the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, in defiance of the nuclear weapons states. The 69 countries to have signed the treaty as of October 2018 have resisted pressures to not sign. They could now organize themselves to intervene collectively to support anti-nuclear groups around the world and show up and speak to the public and policy makers in the nuclear weapon states. There may be more of a constituency than many imagine for the goal of a nuclear weapon free world.

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Greg Mello
5 years ago

Thank you for this interesting and creative essay on a troubling development. The main point — that “[t]here is opportunity now for new kinds of initiatives…to confront the threat from new nuclear weapons…” is certainly true, and the final paragraph provides an excellent example. What is not so good in this article are the plugs for the “resistance to Trump”, as if he was not the duly-elected President of the U.S., and for the “democracy movement struggling against Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia.” In the first case, it is now clear that there was and no doubt still is a… Read more »

Ryan Alt
Ryan Alt
5 years ago

US has a desperate need to believe that it is a lone power. This is a sign of insecurity over its diminishing influence which at this point is undeniable. The US claims that Russia abandoned the INF treaty years ago, but increasing the likelihood of nuclear war in Europe is most assuredly not in the US’ best interests unless they have become suicidal.

Mark Muhich
5 years ago

Excellent analysis, thank you Zia Mian. President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the INF is folly. Will the U.S. lead the world into another nuclear arms race? The folly, the horror. Our elected
Senators and Representatives must express their support to the INF and Non-Proliferation Treaty.Sierra Club has long called for reductions in nuclear weapons and since 2017 calls for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.