The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The INF Treaty withdrawal

By Cecilia Panella and Dani Thompson

Photo Credit: John Salvino

WASHINGTON — On February 1, President Trump announced not only that the United States would be suspending its obligations under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) but also that the United States planned to leave the Treaty entirely in six months’ time. Shortly afterwards, Russian President Vladimir Putin also announced that Russia would be suspending its obligations under the treaty, which was originally signed during the Cold War to create grounds for future cooperation on arms control and stave off potential conventional and nuclear conflict between the two countries. While Putin said that Russia would neither “seek confrontation” with the United States nor be the first to deploy missiles as the treaty was suspended, he did issue a stark warning to the United States: Should the Americans deploy to any nation in Europe, Russia would aim its missiles directly at the United States. This escalation of tensions puts more pressure on the already tenuous relationship between Washington and Moscow, leading many critics of the Trump administration to draw parallels between current events and Cold War tensions. Not only could the suspension of this treaty ease the way for a new arms race between Russia and the United States, but the abandonment of the INF Treaty has also eliminated one of the few remaining aspects of arms control cooperation between the two countries.

However much this development may speak to Cold War diplomacy, the White House has stood by its decision. They note Russian violations of the treaty, including the production of “INF-violating, nuclear-capable missile(s),” as well as the dangers of a rising China and Iran, neither of whom are a party to the INF Treaty. According to President Trump, this move signifies American commitment to genuine arms control — but we’re not so sure. On this week’s episode of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” we’re going to take you inside the history of the INF Treaty and deliberate on whether or not American withdrawal really is a good thing for the future of global arms control efforts. Buckle up.



Concerns about Russian treaty violations in this area are nothing new. Russian cruise missile testing took place as early as 2008, which eventually culminated in the Obama administration designating Russia as a “compliance concern” for the INF Treaty in 2011. Then in 2014, the United States raised its concerns with NATO allies, eventually officially accusing Russia of noncompliance with the treaty in the State Department’s 2014 Compliance Report. Despite repeated earlier statements that the Obama administration was doing its best to preserve the treaty and the arms control cooperation that came with it, the 2014 report was a result of an administration that had clearly been “considerably patient” with Russia in this regard.

In the face of increasing public condemnation of Russian missile activity, the Obama administration held fast to the idea that the treaty could still be salvaged. As of January 2014, President Obama had firmly stated that the United States “would not retaliate against the Russians by violating the treaty and deploying its own prohibited medium-range system.” However much the Obama administration may have worked towards a reasonable reconciliation of the INF Treaty, it was clear that relations were deteriorating. With the introduction of the Trump administration’s policy towards treaties as a general rule, it’s easy to overlook previous concerns and chalk this up as a another Trumpian gesture towards isolationism. Arguments that the treaty is outdated could also be compelling — China, the focal point of this presidency, is not bound by the INF Treaty. Not only has China’s economic and military encroachment in the region been a concern, but the United States under the INF Treaty was limited in its ability to pursue regional missile deterrence. But simply pulling out of the treaty does not automatically beget reasonable policy moving forward. In the context of the Obama administration, Trump’s policies are understandable on their face in this regard if not entirely substantiated by logical policy planning. This dumpster isn’t on fire yet, and that’s the best thing we can say about it.


The good news is that I think this was a good decision and one that was crafted and developed by key non-partisan strategists in the White House and military. That is just my perception, but ultimately, we have to give credit where credit is due. Even Obama had issues with the INF Treaty, and particularly with Russia violating the terms of the agreement. They again violated the terms under the Trump administration while denying it fervently. So this isn’t the first time Russia has violated the treaty, nor the first time it has been claimed that the 1987 treaty is an outdated holdover from the Cold War.

Furthermore, I don’t believe that this decision was made with Russia in mind at all. This was a strategic decision made with regards to China, a party that is not hindered by the INF and one that has been developing intermediate-range weapons, which they can do without violating international law. Meanwhile, the United States and Russia are bound by the INF Treaty only in theory.To be clear, the United States has not abandoned weapons research, but has in fact stopped short of full development. Regardless, I think this was a strategic decision made by high-level officials who have more information than is publically available and have shrewd long-term plans in mind.



On the other hand, while this dumpster isn’t on fire, it is smoking slightly. For me, this is a decision with long-term ramifications made on the schedule of a myopic administration. Exiting this treaty without bringing other arms control options to the table is not an effective way to make policy, especially with regard to a dangerous if not entirely rogue Russian Federation. When compounded with the United States leaving the JCPOA and the impending end date for the New START Treaty, these policy decisions speak to a dangerous pattern of the United States prioritizing its own military flexibility over stability in nuclear arms control.

That prioritization also speaks to something concerning in American foreign policy — notably the perception that arms control and nonproliferation treaties reflect a politics of wrongful constraint as opposed to a politics of responsibility. For the Trump administration, and especially National Security Advisor John Bolton, “escaping” the INF Treaty would allow the United States to try and compete against China’s mid-range conventional weapons buildup. Despite arguments that there is little point to adhering to a treaty that the Russians blatantly flout, the United States does relinquish its legitimacy by condemning Russian weapons buildup when it, not the Russian Federation, withdraws from the INF Treaty. Moreover, leaving the INF will not necessarily bring the Chinese to the table for arms control or nonproliferation negotiations. The United States has simply sacrificed its future leverage in its pursuit for current flexibility.


Pulling out of another treaty, which is starting to look like a trend at this point (it’s not trendy) is not great for U.S. foreign policy. It sends a message to the rest of the world that any treaty made with the United States could fall apart at any time. All of the progress that we have made in past years and the relationships developed between allies and non-allies alike mean nothing and can be reversed with a poorly-worded tweet. These are relationships that take decades to build. Diplomacy is not a short-term game and alliances are not easily developed. Ultimately, while I agree with pulling out of the INF Treaty, the fact that the United States has now reneged on several treaties does not set a high standard for American credibility.



The worst part of this is that there isn’t a precisely “right” answer. The INF Treaty was outdated and clearly ineffective in bringing the Russian Federation to heel regarding arms control and nuclear nonproliferation, but it was one of the few areas of meaningful bilateral policy cooperation in this regard between Moscow and Washington. The question then becomes whether or not leaving this treaty was directed at the Russians to begin with — I’m amenable to the argument that this was a move focused more on Chinese development than on Russian unwillingness to abide by treaty law, but I don’t think this was the most direct way to confront that issue. Once again, the Trump administration has chosen to approach foreign policy through a confrontation at the periphery rather than drilling down into the complex problems that will be confronting policymakers for the foreseeable future.

As I see it, those problems are twofold: First, how to negotiate with the Russian Federation in order to prevent Cold War-style escalation in Europe; second, how to limit or combat Chinese mid-range weapons development. Unlike the Cold War power dynamic, the United States does not have the political capital to leverage Russia back to the table via threat of force. The idea that the United States would be willing to defend its allies by placing missiles on the European continent in the face of a threat to the American homeland may have been slightly more believable in the 1960s, but it certainly will not work now. The decline of American prestige means that there is at least a tangential drop in U.S. deterrent capabilities in this realm, and Putin knows this. Considering the problem at hand, I think that it’s unlikely that the United States will be able to push for the same level of bilateral cooperation on this issue, at least during this administration. The Trump administration simply hasn’t prioritized the transatlantic relationship enough to make a sudden reversal on this issue credible. Moreover, the Russians haven’t experienced a meaningful consequence as a result of their actions, and it’s unreasonable to think that a petulant Trump will inspire them to fall in line.

That said, I think that the Chinese angle is much more workable. It’s clear that the Chinese have proven themselves as a reasonable geostrategic and economic alternative to the American-led world order, and recent reports of their weapons development projects suggest that they are trying to modernize their armed forces in a way that would place them in serious and direct conflict with American power projection in the region. More problematically, the Russian Federation and PRC are slowly re-aligning themselves against the United States — unlike the last time this happened, China is the political behemoth.


The main issue however is that without the INF Treaty, Russia can develop and use weapons that were previously banned. However, it can reasonably be argued that they were doing that anyway. Russia’s denials that they were not violating the treaty mean very little; after all, they denied they were invading Crimea and we can all see the reality of that situation. Furthermore, while leaving the INF Treaty might be good in the short term, there is no plan in place for long-term constraints on ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and missile launchers with ranges of 500-1000 km. Europe, the clear beneficiary of the treaty, no longer has that reassurance of safety from Russia from these particular weapons, and China is still free to develop these weapons at will. The question moving forward is do we enter into negotiations with China to continue to ban these weapons? I personally doubt that the Chinese will consider doing so. China has been steadily increasing its defense spending since 2007, and it doesn’t seem in their best interest to put restrictions on that progress.

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