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No Better Off – The Death of the INF Treaty

By: Trevor Herden

Since 1945, the only two things that have stood between humanity and nuclear annihilation are judicious decision-making and luck. Unfortunately, since luck cannot be counted on, we can only make good choices. Arms control has helped maintain the delicate balance between nuclear and aspiring powers in managing risk. The involvement of the United States and Russia, in particular, has been key to every successful nuclear arms control treaty. However, the willingness of the United States and Russia to participate and constrain themselves is deteriorating. Most notably, the termination of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) signals a decline in global safety from nuclear exchange. Termination of the INF treaty is dangerous to the whole world.

The INF Treaty was signed by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986, following six years of negotiations. The Treaty was intended to maintain deterrence in Europe. Because intermediate-range missiles (310 – 3,400-mile range) were capable of destroying Europe, but not of reaching the United States, the confidence of NATO-members in American presidents to respond to a nuclear attack in Europe by the USSR was undermined. Would Americans really risk all-out war in defense of Europe? By eliminating intermediate-range missiles from both countries’ arsenals, any nuclear exchange would necessarily include the homeland of both the United States and the USSR. At least, so the theory of deterrence proposed.

The INF Treaty was successful during its life. Clearly the worst outcome, use of nuclear weapons, was avoided, but the Treaty also set important norms about deterrence and successfully constrained the United States and Russia from use and development of intermediate-range missiles. The INF Treaty was successful and is a clear example of mutually beneficial international cooperation.

The law on treaty termination derives from the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT). The VCLT was ratified by the Russian Federation and is recognized by the United States as largely binding customary international law. Article 60 of the VCLT provides the process for the termination of bilateral treaties. Simply put, for a bilateral treaty to be terminated, one state must first materially breach the treaty and then the other state may elect to terminate the treaty, although termination is not required. If a treaty is terminated, all obligations of all the states party are ended. Termination is at least procedurally simple, even if the political process is more complex.

Russia has argued that the United States has been in breach since 2016, when the United States installed an anti-ballistic missile system in PolandThe Kremlin contended that the missiles used by the system were of the range and type that the INF Treaty specifically prohibited. Additionally, Russia believed U.S. drone use to be a violation.Russia, however, did not terminate the Treaty.

Since 2014, the U.S. State Department has alleged that Russia has missiles in contravention of the Treaty. Particularly, the SM729 missile has been alleged to violate the INF Treaty, although the actual existence of the missile is in question. Regardless, using the SM729 as justification, the Trump administration announced the termination of the treaty in January 2019, abrogating any obligations either party had under the Treaty. 

The United States’ and Russia’s reasons for termination are not solely about one another. The geopolitics of the Treaty were also complicated by the development of China’s missile force. As China has developed its military – including the deployment of its first aircraft carrier, development of a fifth-generation jet fighter, and building foreign bases – it has also deployed increasingly sophisticated missiles. China maintains that its Dongfeng-26 (DF-26) missiles are a deterrent, but the risk they pose to Guam and Russia complicate the interests of the INF signatories.

Despite complications to its geopolitical rationale, the goals of the Treaty are still desirable. Rather than ending the Treaty and allowing Russia to build an unstable, multipolar world with less nuclear arms control, the United States and Russia should remake it to include China and other powers capable of producing intermediate range missiles. Increasing the applications of nuclear weapons will not lead to peace, but will only increase the danger of mistake, misunderstanding, and, nuclear war.

The death of the INF treaty may signal the beginning of another perilous era in global politics, as dangerous nuclear competition returns. Although the dangers of nuclear war were never experienced in the twentieth century, there is no guarantee that global luck will continue. It is undeniable that we live in a more dangerous world than we did before the termination of the Treaty, and, with the upcoming renewal of the New START Treaty in 2021, it can only be hoped that decision-makers will take steps to protect the globe against destruction.


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