Diplomatic Spillover Costs Make Leaving the INF Treaty Too Dangerous

Photo Credit: CNN

By: Kathryn Long, Columnist

On Friday, December 14th, the Russian Mission to the United Nations announced that it had submitted a resolution to the body’s General Assembly in support of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.[i] This follows the October announcement by President Trump that the United States would be exiting the Cold War-era treaty in response to continuous Russian violations.[ii] Although the value of the INF Treaty has been threatened by Russian violations as well as changes in the global strategic situation such that the bipolar world in which the treaty was signed no longer exists, exiting the treaty is counterproductive. Terminating the INF Treaty will only exacerbate the danger of an arms race emerging while also limiting the effectiveness of diplomatic tools designed to reduce the aggressive behaviors arms treaties seek to limit.

Signed in December of 1987, the INF treaty required the destruction of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as their associated equipment, with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.[iii] American officials believe Russia has been developing a new cruise missile in violation of this agreement since at least 2008.[iv] Concerned by the fact that neighboring states are not constrained by the INF Treaty and are constructing arsenals of these weapons, Russia has threatened to withdraw from the treaty since the mid-2000s.[v] Such threats suggest Russia continues to view the INF Treaty as an impediment to its development of these weapons. Therefore, despite alleged Russian violations, the treaty remains successful in its fundamental purpose of reducing the risk an arms race.

Nevertheless, the bilateral nature of the treaty has become a source of frustration for both signatories. Signed at the end of the Cold War, the treaty emerged in an international system dominated by two superpowers, a very different set of strategic circumstances than exists today. Since then, other countries have expanded their military capacity significantly. Today, North Korea, China, India, and Pakistan all have increasing intermediate-range missile arsenals.[vi] Perhaps more significant is that approximately 95 percent of China’s current missile inventory falls within the range outlawed by the treaty, posing a growing threat to U.S. military bases and personnel in the Western Pacific.[vii] China’s development of these weapons has led some commentators to call for pushing China to join and abide by the INF Treaty, though Beijing shows little interest in doing so.[viii] However, by refusing to remain constrained by the treaty, the United States risks exacerbating the danger posed by China; by expanding its intermediate nuclear forces, the United States could come to be seen by China as an even greater threat, which might culminate in an arms race.[ix] Because of this risk, leaving the treaty in retaliation for Russian non-compliance or the lack of similar restrictions on other countries is counterproductive because it will likely only further destabilize the international situation.

Resolving this predicament, either by bringing Russia back into compliance or convincing growing militaries such as China’s to give up intermediate-range missiles, will require a sustained diplomatic effort to renegotiate current arms control agreements or draft new ones. By simply withdrawing from the treaty, the United States sends a dangerous signal about its unwillingness to submit to arms control schemes. Experts, and even some U.S. allies, already worry about the spillover effects caused by an American exit from the INF Treaty, particularly regarding the effectiveness and credibility of other arms control agreements to which the U.S. is party. Of particular concern is the sustained viability of the New Start Treaty.[x] It is likely that the same uncertainty would also curtail the United States’ ability to negotiate new treaties. By formally ending restrictions on Moscow’s missile development, a U.S. exit from the INF Treaty would pose a grave threat to American allies in Europe and Asia that are in range of an expanded Russian arsenal. By leaving the treaty, the U.S. would demonstrate little regard for the security of these countries, putting future American-led arms control initiatives at risk as these allies pursue other means of achieving security, fearful that they can no longer depend on the United States to remain faithful to its diplomatic commitments. Despite the current issues surrounding Russian noncompliance with the INF Treaty, the United States is better served by remaining party to it. Exiting the treaty would hamper future diplomatic efforts and risks becoming the impetus for an arms race. Despite its flaws, the United States is safer with the INF Treaty than without it.















[i] Radina Gigova and Madeline Holcombe, “Russia Proposes UN Resolution to preserve INF Treaty,” CNN, December 15, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/15/us/russia-resolution-inf-treaty/index.html.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] U.S. Department of State, “Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics On The Elimination Of Their Intermediate-Range And Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty),” accessed December 17, 2018, https://www.state.gov/t/avc/trty/102360.htm.

[iv] Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Says Russia Tested Missile, Despite Treaty,” The New York Times, January 29, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/30/world/europe/us-says-russia-tested-missile-despite-treaty.html?_r=0.

[v] Daryl Kimball, “The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, December 2018, https://armscontrol.org/factsheets/INFtreaty.

[vi] The New York Times Editorial Board, “Don’t Tear Up this Treaty,” The New York Times, December 15, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/15/opinion/sunday/trump-russia-nuclear-treaty-inf.html.

[vii] Eric Sayers, “The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Future of the Indo-Pacific Military Balance,” War on the Rocks, February 13, 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/02/asia-inf/.

[viii] Tong Zhao, “Why China is Worried About the End of the INF Treaty,” Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, November 7, 2018, https://carnegietsinghua.org/2018/11/07/why-china-is-worried-about-end-of-inf-treaty-pub-77669.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ankit Panda, “The Uncertain Future of the INF Treaty,” Council on Foreign Relations, October 22, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/uncertain-future-inf-treaty.

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