President Trump recently announced on Oct. 20 that he will withdraw the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), citing repeated Russian noncompliance with the Cold War era treaty’s terms. This proposed move has provoked consternation from the European Union, Russia and China and elicited mixed reactions at home. Although I agree that several supporters of the president have made sound arguments for withdrawing from the INF Treaty, I do not think that this administration, led by hawks like Pompeo, Bolton and Trump himself, is sufficiently committed to diplomatically resolving conflicts. Withdrawing from the INF treaty opens up the possibility of a renewed arms race and the further deterioration of the United States’ reputation abroad.
The INF Treaty was signed in 1987 by the United States and the Soviet Union to decrease the risk of nuclear war, both sides committed to banning land-based ballistic missiles (nuclear and non-nuclear) capable of ranges from 500 to 5,500 km (300 to 3,400 miles). By 1991, roughly 2,700 U.S. and Soviet missiles were eliminated (The Washington Post, “How China plays into Trump’s decision to pull out of INF treaty with Russia,” 10.23.2018). The treaty received praise from the international community, and the committee of scientists in the Atomic Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board moved the hands of its “doomsday” clock back three minutes to signify the importance of the arms reduction treaty in decreasing the likelihood of nuclear catastrophe (Chicago Tribune, “‘Doomsday’ Clock Set Back 3 Minutes,” 12.18.1987). As the successor to the Soviet Union, Russia remains legally bound by the agreements signed by its predecessor (The Huffington Post, “Trump’s Planned Nuclear Pact Withdrawal ‘Not The Work Of A Great Mind,’ Says Gorbachev,” 10.22.2018).
After a rally in Nevada on Oct. 20, Trump stated, “Russia has not, unfortunately, honored the agreement, so we’re going to terminate the agreement and we’re going to pull out…[W]e are going to terminate the agreement and then we are going to develop the weapons [until both Russia and China agree to a new treaty] (NBC News, “Trump says U.S. will pull out of intermediate range nuke pact, citing Russian violations,” 10.21.2018). China never signed the treaty in 1987 and possesses a large arsenal of ballistics that would be banned under the terms of the current treaty. Trump went on to say that the United States will outspend Russia and China in building up their respective nuclear arsenals (Bloomberg, “U.S. Sails Warships Through Taiwan Strait in Show of Force to China,” 10.22.2018). Trump is correct that Russia has been in violation of the INF Treaty. The Russian military has been developing a new mid-range missile since the mid-2000s and began deploying it in 2016 (The Wall Street Journal, “Arms Control for Dummies,” 10.22.2018). However, there is little reason to believe that withdrawing from the treaty will result in a newly expanded treaty in the short term. Rather, this action risks reigniting a wasteful arms race and escalating proxy conflicts between the United States and Russia in Ukraine and Syria. The Trump administration has already alienated many international partners by unilaterally withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, and countries will be hesitant to negotiate with an administration that demonstrates a consistent disregard for diplomacy and multilateralism (The New York Times, “Where’s That Better Deal, Mr. Trump?” 05.08.2018).
Furthermore, withdrawing from the INF Treaty would free the United States to station mid-range land-based ballistic missiles in range of China. This would allow the United States to potentially exert more force in deterring China from encroaching upon the territory of the United States’ allies in the Indo-Pacific region but would also precipitously erode U.S.-China relations already strained by the Trump administration–initiated trade war. For China to acquiesce to U.S. demands to dismantle the majority of their mid-range ballistics would be politically unthinkable for the ruling Communist Party.
Perhaps the various geopolitical quandaries that will come from withdrawing from the INF treaty could be effectively navigated by another administration, but I sincerely question the capacity of today’s leadership to mitigate conflict and negotiate with reasonable expectations. The administration is now dominated by men like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton who consistently reject the legitimacy of international institutions and agreements and aggressively promote military intervention overseas. Furthermore, the State Department has yet to recover from the mass exodus of experienced diplomats during the disastrous tenure of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Russia’s repeated defiance of the INF treaty and China’s aggressive posture toward U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific region are legitimate concerns, and perhaps withdrawal from the INF could yield some tangible benefit to the security of the United States and its allies. However, the people in the White House and Pentagon right now are not the people who should be trusted with that task. In the words of EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini: “The world doesn’t need a new arms race that would benefit no one and on the contrary would bring even more instability” (The Guardian, “EU warns Trump of nuclear arms race risk after INF withdrawal move,” 10.23.2018).