On October 20, President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the US-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). An important strategic arms control measure, it was signed by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan in December 1987 with the aim to eliminate all their ground based ballistic and cruise missiles of ranges between 500 and 5500 km. In all almost 2700 missiles were destroyed by both sides.
For many years the US has claimed that Russia was violating the INF treaty by developing cruise missiles that were covered by its prohibitions. Instead of attempting to negotiate to bring Russia in compliance Trump has signalled his intention to walk out of the treaty. An important reason may be a strategic US desire to develop intermediate range missiles and deploy them against China. That is perhaps why US has said that China has to be part of INF arrangements.
Russia, China and the EU have reacted strongly against Trump's intention. Expectedly, Russia has denied a violation of the treaty. It warned that it would have to take 'measures' for its security and that without the INF treaty the world would become a more dangerous place. China emphasised that a "unilateral withdrawal will cause many negative effects". It is indignant at being dragged in a bilateral US-Russian treaty and said that it would not be blackmailed. The elimination of intermediate range missiles had meant that ground-based missiles of this class did not have to be based in European countries; hence, the INF treaty is a part of Europe's security architecture. European countries are therefore dismayed at Trump's intention. They want the treaty to continue while wanting Russia to be more transparent.
Trump is unlikely to be swayed by EU entreaties. He is the unilateralist wedded to America First. He has based his entire foreign policy approach on this dictum and has no interest in masking the fist of naked national interest in the velvet glove of action through the UN or multilateral coalitions. His approaches and actions on trade, migration issues, climate change bear witness. Equally significantly, his decision to go back on the Iran nuclear deal, despite all the pleas of his European allies, demonstrates the line he will take on the INF treaty.
Trump does not appear to have any interest in strategic arms control. This is the implication contained in his National Security Strategy (NSS) announced in December 2017. Instead of actively seeking to reduce the number of strategic weapons and their delivery systems it only expressed a willingness to "consider new arms control arrangements if they contribute to strategic stability and are verifiable". The decision to undo the INF treaty and a desire to include China in intermediate range missiles regimes reflects the thought process of the NSS.
With Trump's announcement on the INF treaty some experts are giving attention to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (new START) which the US and Russia signed in 2010. It caps the number of nuclear warheads to 1550 which each country can possess and also limits delivery systems. It is a product of the realisation that has prevailed in both countries over decades that the Cold War situation which had led to the possession, by one estimate, of 30,000 nuclear weapons by both countries was counterproductive. The question now being asked is if Trump, if re-elected, will refuse to renew the treaty which expires in 2021.
A significant point is that arms control cannot lead to nuclear disarmament. US and Russian reduction of nuclear stockpiles was not a path that led to disarmament. This was despite the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty (NPT) bargain that the nuclear weapons states would negotiate to undertake the elimination of their nuclear weapons and the non-nuclear weapon countries would not develop them. The nuclear weapon states have no intention of giving up their arsenals. As the NSS states, "Nuclear weapons are the foundation of our strategy to preserve peace and stability". What is true for the US applies to the four other nuclear NPT states as well. They too will not give up their nuclear arsenals. India is not a signatory to the NPT but is respected as a responsible nuclear power and is being integrated in technology control regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). China is opposing its entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group but with the NSG waiver it has the freedom to engage in civil nuclear commerce.
The NPT nuclear weapon states are generally vigilant to ensure that the countries that do not have these weapons do not seek to do so. However, in some cases they looked the other way for their strategic reasons. In other cases— Libya, Iran and North Korea for instance–they sought to use carrots and sticks to either dissuade the acquisition of these weapons or to give them up. The North Korean issue is an unfolding one. The final denouement remains uncertain.
A last thought: Trump's decision on the INF treaty as his turning back on earlier US commitments on global agreements and understandings reinforce the ancient truth about the essential lawless nature of international relations and of the place of agreements and treaties. The latter only last as long as it is in the interest of all the parties to adhere to them. If it suits a party to walk out and that party has the strength to do so nothing can hold it back. That is the lesson of history.