The INF Treaty is done, but lessons for policy remain

By John Woodworth | August 2, 2019

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, ends on August 2, bringing to a close one of the most remarkable chapters in arms control history. There is much about the INF story that bears recalling, as it provides lessons for the conduct of US diplomacy and policy making in the uncharted waters ahead.

For decades, the combination of deterrence and arms control has shaped US policy. However, the strategic landscape and weapons technologies have changed dramatically since the INF negotiations in the 1980’s, in which I played a role as deputy negotiator. Under the Trump Administration, it increasingly appears that the policy balance is swinging to greater and perhaps sole reliance on deterrence. The administration has spoken about 21st-century arms control, but beyond involving China, it is unclear what this means. The US-Russian strategic dialogue that got underway in July is encouraging, but it remains to be seen whether new approaches to stemming the nuclear arms race, as well as rivalries in space and cyber warfare, will emerge.

The INF Treaty was hardly a foregone conclusion at the time of its signing in 1987. Remarkably, the outcome hewed closely to President Reagan’s famous zero proposal in 1981. The agreement remains unprecedented, eliminating all US and Russian missiles between the ranges of 500 to 5500 kilometers. The two countries destroyed a total of 2,692 ballistic and cruise missiles by the treaty’s deadline of June 1, 1991, with verification that had not been imagined as possible before.

The impact of the treaty extended well beyond its arms control achievements and halted the widespread anti-nuclear demonstrations that roiled both Europe and America in the 1970s and 1980s. More important, the treaty underwrote the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace that seemed to hold real promise after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In addition, the treaty set the stage for US President H.W. Bush to remove nearly all tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and Asia and aboard US Navy ships—in other words, expanding nuclear reductions to include weapons outside the parameters of “intermediate-range.” Never before in the post-World War II era had Europeans been able to experience life largely free of the fear of nuclear war.

At the heart of the complex story of the INF Treaty were the two signatories of the treaty: President Reagan gained a deep disaffection for nuclear weapons, perhaps as only a person who held the authority to unleash unimaginable destruction could feel. He came to think increasingly that nuclear dangers must be reduced. At that historical juncture, he found a partner in Mikhail Gorbachev, who shared Reagan’s views on nuclear weapons. Gorbachev also saw the need to end a mindless and expensive arms race that would only impede the reforms he sought for the Soviet Union.

No one was sure what kind of leader Gorbachev would be when he came to power. But in the negotiations, his moves to drop Soviet positions that impeded progress opened the path to agreement. This even included the elimination of shorter-range INF missiles, which came to be known as the double-zero outcome. The Soviets gave up missiles of their own but also achieved a ban on earlier US Pershing missiles, and, through skillful maneuvers, the removal of the same missiles deployed by West Germany.

The final stage of negotiations was consumed with verification issues. The United States was almost always the demander for provisions to assure effective verification—aptly summed-up in the Reagan signature phrase as “trust, but verify”—and made clear there would be no agreement without them. Gaining Soviet acceptance of the treaty’s ground-breaking verification measures was a wrenching process, but the Soviets insisted that all provisions apply equally to the United States. Thus, for example, the seemingly improbable US inspection regime that was installed at the Soviet missile production plant in Votkinsk was matched by a Soviet inspection arrangement at the Martin Marietta missile production facility in Magna, Utah.

The central lesson of the INF negotiations was that an agreement as significant as the INF Treaty is not possible without strong political leadership. In particular, Gorbachev had to overcome resistance in the Politburo, Soviet military, and civilian bureaucracies. US Secretary of State George Shultz and his Soviet counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, also were instrumental in forging agreement. Importantly, success also rested on strong US negotiating teams, a proficient interagency back-stopping process, and coordination centered in the White House.

Nor could the INF Treaty have been achieved without the support of US allies. Alliance consultation and coordination during the long-running missile issue from the 1979 NATO dual-track decision on deployments and negotiations to the signing of the INF Treaty in 1987 was an unequaled example of peacetime collaboration. The United States necessarily played a leading role as the principal guarantor of alliance nuclear security, but gaining trust among all NATO members required remarkable statecraft. Alliance solidarity secured negotiating leverage, and assured clarity in principles and objectives.

Agreements like the INF Treaty cannot happen without negotiations in good faith by both parties. Vladimir Putin’s reckless deployment of the 9M729 cruise missile (also known as the SSC-8) led to the breakdown of the treaty—and in time-honored fashion, the Russians accused the United States of violations.

It might have been possible to salvage the treaty if political will had existed to hammer out solutions to outstanding issues. Instead, we are at the cusp of a new arms race in Europe and Asia. Perhaps it was only a moment in time, but the INF Treaty pointed toward what can be done to achieve a safer and more secure world. It would be regrettable to lose sight of these ambitions.


Together, we make the world safer.

The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.

Get alerts about this thread
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
gra gor
gra gor
4 years ago

Are you sure it was the Russians? After all it was the US that broke the agreement with Gorbachev that NATO wouldn’t move one step East. Instead it now has missiles on all borders. I call bullshit on you Mr. American negotiator.

Martin Elvemo
Martin Elvemo
4 years ago

“It appears that the 9M729 missile that is being deployed by Russia is likely not capable of ranges that violate the INF Treaty.” (…..) “Russia has indicated that it is willing to go further—perhaps removing the missile from its sealed launch canister for a more technical evaluation by U.S. specialists—to reinforce the 9M729’s compliance.The U.S. has refused to participate in such an exercise.”

M Henri Day
M Henri Day
4 years ago

«Vladimir Putin’s reckless deployment of the 9M729 cruise missile (also known as the SSC-8) led to the breakdown of the treaty—and in time-honored fashion, the Russians accused the United States of violations.» As, if Mr Woodworth, the US deployment of the Mk 41 launching pads in Europe was not a violation of the treaty. Too bad you had to destroy your credibility in your second-to-last paragraph…..