On the INF Treaty, Negotiations Can Work

President Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev shake hands after signing the INF Treaty.

This is not a time for brinkmanship.

Thirty years ago, American and Soviet leaders signed a treaty eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons, making the world a safer place while setting the stage for gradual disarmament. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty has been a staple of the nuclear nonproliferation movement and the international security framework since it was signed in 1987.  Today, the Trump administration intends to abandon the treaty in response to alleged violations by the Russian Federation. Instead, the administration should use diplomatic channels to address these allegations with Russia.

The INF Treaty has protected U.S. allies in Europe and in Asia from a sudden nuclear attack and prevented the rise of many other potential nuclear weapons states around the world. Recently, Russia has been developing and testing missiles with ranges barred by the agreement. These forces are non-compliant with the treaty and undermine the spirit of arms control. The U.S. must respond to Russia’s actions, but there’s no need to walk away from the treaty just yet.

Nuclear security today requires a measured and responsible approach.  Before withdrawal, the U.S. should invite Russia to convene the Special Verifications Commission, which was established by the INF Treaty to address compliance issues. Many U.S. allies question America’s commitment to the international order and impulsively tearing down a hallmark arms control agreement would reinforce that perception.

Rather than hastily abandoning the agreement, the U.S. should call on Russia to back up its denials through joint inspections of the forces in question. At a time when U.S. allies are losing faith in American leadership, the United States would do well to demonstrate its commitment to the international order it built. This course of action demonstrates that diplomacy is a viable option and international commitments are to be taken seriously.

America first doesn’t have to mean America alone.

If the commission provides substantial evidence of Russia’s violations, the U.S. would be justified in withdrawing. The U.S. would then be able to expand its deterrence capabilities while regaining the trust and support of its allies. Despite their suspicion over Russia’s development of nuclear weapons, U.S. allies largely don’t support a hasty withdrawal. Pursuing a measured diplomatic strategy in response to Russia’s alleged INF Treaty violations would reassure U.S. allies in a time of increasing uncertainty.

This strategy also offers a chance to avoid a prohibitively expensive nuclear build-up. The U.S. is slated to spend $1.2 trillion on nuclear modernization over the next thirty years. Reintroducing an entire class of nuclear-capable missiles would drive this number even higher. It could also lead countries like Iran or North Korea to renew their nuclear weapons programs, or even encourage new countries to pursue nuclear weapons programs of their own.

Some might point to the fact that the U.S. has convened this commission multiple times in the last few years and is no closer to a solution than it was in 2014. The United States had a similar disagreement with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. However, Soviet treaty violations were approached diplomatically and, eventually, progress was made. This strategy worked with the Soviet Union at a time when the stakes were much higher; there is reason to believe it can also work today.  Even if it doesn’t, the United States enhances its credibility with NATO allies while demonstrating a commitment to due-process.

Others are concerned about the risk represented by Chinese ballistic missiles, since China is not a party to the INF Treaty. They argue that withdrawal from the treaty would allow the U.S. to deploy INF-banned missiles in East Asia and close the missile gap with China. This move could just as easily kick-start a destabilizing arms race, a possibility American allies are concerned about  Even if intermediate land-based missiles were necessary, it remains to be seen whether or not U.S. allies would allow for their deployment on their territory.

It is important to address China’s missile capabilities, but leaving the INF Treaty is the worst of all options; the decision sharply reduces the likelihood of negotiating a similar agreement with China. The U.S. will be hard-pressed to portray itself as a credible negotiator when it so easily abandons a landmark arms control agreement. In lieu of initiating an expensive and dangerous three-way arms race, the United States should first attempt to preserve the current treaty and even bring China to the table. It might not work, but it makes little sense to walk away without trying.

Walking away from a major arms control treaty without the backing of allies undermines the United States’ reputation and upends the strategic environment in Europe and Asia. Rather than reverting to a precarious, Cold War-like order, the Trump administration should return to the negotiating table and address the allegations of noncompliance.  Doing so would demonstrate the U.S. is dedicated to maintaining a rules-based international order.

Ryan Dempsey

Ryan Dempsey is a M.A. candidate in Security Policy Studies from the Elliot School of International Affairs at the George Washington University.

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