Why the US insists on withdrawing from the INF Treaty?

China Military Online
Chen Zhuo

By Ling Shengli

As the administration of US President Donald Trump announced that his country is pulling out of the “Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty” (INF Treaty), the US is going further on the road of withdrawing from the international community and breaking treaties. Compared with previous US withdrawals from multilateral treaties or international organizations, this time the US is unilaterally withdrawing from an important bilateral treaty between the United States and Russia, which will have far-reaching effects on US-Russia relations, regional security and future development of global nuclear power.

File photo taken on Dec. 8, 1987 shows U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in the White House in Washington D.C., the United States.

The INF Treaty, formally the “Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles,” was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in December 1987. The treaty bans the maintaining, manufacturing or testing of ground-launched cruise missiles and ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The signing of the treaty not only played a positive role in easing the US-Soviet arms race at that time, but also played an important role in pushing nuclear disarmament and promoting the balance of global nuclear strategy after the Cold War.

However, after more than 30 years, both the United States and Russia have wavered in abiding by the INF Treaty. The treaty mainly restricts land-based forces, instead of sea-launched and air-launched cruise missiles including ballistic missiles. This means that the INF Treaty cannot effectively restrain the development of nuclear power of the United States and Russia. In particular, as the strategic concerns of the United States and Russia have changed, their views diverged on the role of the INF Treaty.

During the Cold War, the INF Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union mainly aimed to ease their competition of nuclear power in the European region. After the Cold War, the US military activity area expanded, with the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region becoming the new military focus of the US, while Russia was mainly concerned about its surrounding areas due to the relative decline of its national strength. For the United States, it regarded the INF Treaty as an obstacle preventing its nuclear power deployment in regions including the Asia-Pacific and damaging its own hegemony and interests, and thus had repeatedly requested amending or withdrawing from the treaty.

The reasons why the Trump administration decided to withdraw from the INF Treaty this time are as follows: Firstly, the United States hopes to remove fetters on its way of developing a series of short and medium-range nuclear weapons. The United States is eager to possess ballistic missiles of various ranges to enrich its nuclear power, which is obviously contrary to the US-Soviet Union INF Treaty. However, the US government pursues a principle of utilitarianism, that is taking advantage of international agreements when favorable and quitting it when unfavorable. Therefore, the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty this time looks quite “reasonable”. In fact, this is not the first time the United States has done so. As early as 2002, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (ABM Treaty) which was signed by the United States and the USSR in 1972. Since then, the United States has accelerated its development and deployment of missile defense systems. And this time, the US is merely doing the same thing all over again.

Secondly, the Trump administration attaches great importance to nuclear forces with a view of reinvigorating its military power. Compared with the predecessor Obama administration's vigorous advocacy of building a “nuclear-free world,” the Trump administration has not only increased defense spending, but also paid more attention to nuclear forces. The new Nuclear Posture Review published by the US Department of Defense (DoD) in February 2018 stated that the United States should develop more types of nuclear weapons, enrich its means of nuclear strikes, and enhance its nuclear deterrence. That in fact lowers the threshold for nuclear development and shows the US’s proactive attitude to the development of nuclear forces.

Thirdly, this demonstrates the confidence of the United States in its nuclear forces. During the Cold War, the reason why the United States and the Soviet Union were able to achieve much progress on the issue of arms control and disarmament was that both sides had recognized the limits of their nuclear forces and were afraid of each other’s nuclear forces, enabling the two sides to impose restrictions on each other. But now the United States confidently believes that it is superior to Russia in the competition of nuclear forces, and the INF Treaty actually imposed more restriction on the U.S. than Russia. Therefore, it considered rather necessary to not fulfill its obligations in the INF treaty any more.

The unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the INF Treaty will intensify the imbalance of nuclear forces between the United States and Russia. It becomes even more difficult for the United States and Russia to sign certain arms control agreement in the future. Russia will take retaliatory measures, and US-Russia relations will continue to deteriorate.

Moreover, once the US gets rid of the shackles of the INF Treaty, the US will strengthen its frontier deployment in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region, while Europe will find itself under much more pressure due to Russia’s counter-measures. Many regions will suffer from the imbalance of security resulting from the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty.

Finally, the withdrawal will also have devastating effects on the global nuclear arms control and disarmament. The advancement of global nuclear arms control and disarmament cannot do without the self-restraint and commitment of big powers. The unilateralist position of the United States has had a very bad demonstration effect to the rest of the world, which will aggravate the global nuclear arms race and put global security at more risks.

(The author is the secretary-general at the Center of the International Security Studies, China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU).)



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