In 1987, well-meaning people believed that something could be done to lessen the Soviet nuclear and missile threat to Europe, and to make the world a safer and more secure place—a laudable pursuit. That something was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. This landmark agreement removed an entire class of dangerous weapons from Europe and inaugurated the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
The 1980s were a time when few drew distinctions between the well-being of America’s allies and the security of the United States. The Soviet Union was betting it could drive a wedge between the United States and Europe by deploying SS-20s that directly targeted NATO allies. While some Europeans were convinced that Soviet actions would lead to an arms race on their soil, then-German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt gave a landmark 1977 speech about the decoupling of the United States from NATO and the disastrous effect it would have for the Alliance. The Soviet effort at division failed at that moment. It was a point in history when everyone understood that freedom and democracy were on one side of the equation and all that the Soviets represented was on the other. It was a bi-polar world where enemies and their arsenals were easy to identify, actions and responses were more predictable, and where everything was much easier to sell politically as us-versus-them.
But that time has passed, and the turbulent events that have followed in the wake of the Cold War beg the question of whether arms control agreements signed during one century make sense in the next. Laudable as the INF Treaty was, it is doubtful that it could continue in its current iteration to be meaningful in a world that is anything but stagnant.The problem with many agreements is that they have no sunset clauses, and few ways if any to change them. There is a misguided notion that something signed once should exist in perpetuity regardless of its present utility.
Listening to the arguments for keeping INF intact is like talking to a sentimental grandparent reminiscing about simpler times. In that world, we did not worry much about China, though we should have; we did not foresee Korea, Iran, India, Pakistan, and others for whom these restrictions never applied becoming either nuclear powers or nuclear wannabes. If the goal is arms control for the sake of arms control—which indeed it may well be for many of the pundits and career arms controllers—then by all means we should continue to negotiate bilateral treaties that do not enhance the safety and security of a single soul on the planet. But if we are realistic, that simply won’t cut it. Nostalgia might be comforting, but it should not compel us to hang on to a treaty that does not reflect the reality of today’s global security landscape. Inertia is our enemy.
Being realistic means looking at the world as it is, not as we wish it could be. The argument that staying in INF will somehow bring Russia to heel assumes that its motivations are at least similar to ours, a fallacy that has cost us dearly in the recent past. INF, like other nuclear and missile constraining regimes, was designed to curb potentially destructive behavior, and was implemented with the presumption that most countries generally agree that is a good thing. But what if those behaviors are no longer anathema to the people sitting across that table? Is it really prudent to stay the course when one party does everything in its power to direct the research, development, production, and deployment of the same class of systems the INF Treaty is supposed to prohibit?
This is not just tinkering a little bit around the margins, but violations on a grand scale. With typical Russian arrogance, the Kremlin barely tried to hide its cheating ways. Putin tested the absolute limits of U.S. patience on INF as he has on so many other things. And in the interim, while he was waiting for the United States to decide whether enough is enough, he got in another couple of swipes by threatening Europe’s security and placing the blame squarely on America for failing to go along to get along. While his blandishments had echoes of Soviet policy from decades ago, it was a good bet for Putin to take. Europe is not the same as it was in the 1980s. Europeans are less interested than ever in a nuclear arms race and there is infinitely less trust that the United States helmed by Trump will do what’s right for NATO than there was when Reagan was President.
While it is not necessarily remarkable that so many actually bought Putin’s line and are piling on to blame the Trump Administration for ringing the INF’s death knell, the fact is that the United States is neither culpable nor even remotely responsible for persistently bad Russian behavior. Russia’s expeditious deployment of these treaty violating systems mere days after the U.S. announcement is not the fault of Washington, though Russia will work hard to ensure that it is seen that way.
Russia has much to work with. A lot of these reflexes were around during the Cold War. Then, as now, some people believed there is a moral equivalent between the United States and Russia or the United States and China. But there is none. Unlike Moscow, Washington does not threaten its purported enemies with nuclear armageddon every time they do something we dislike. And unlike China with Taiwan, the United States does not threaten its neighbors with missiles unless they submit.
Many who rue the demise of INF believe that if the United States simply constrained itself, others would follow. Implied in this worldview is that American intransigence was and continues to be a big part of the problem. They cannot fathom a world that operates under different rules. That the world is less safe today because so many other countries now have or are developing missiles in the precise ranges specified by INF simply does not compute for these people. Constraining ourselves out of an entire class of weapons has done absolutely nothing to stop Russia, China, and other countries from pursuing their own nuclear ends.
Is a new arms race in the offing? The truth is it has gone on unabated for decades, with the United States the only one playing by the rules. That is the biggest part of the problem, not only with the INF Treaty but with New START as well. The United States takes its treaty obligations very seriously and as a rule does not cheat, connive, or hide countless transgressions. Our counterparts know this about us—they count on it in fact—all the while doing the exact opposite.
The grim truth is that even without Russian perfidy, the time for bilateral arms agreements has long passed. In the 1980s, the INF Treaty made perfect sense. It showed anyone who was watching—and lots were—that the United States would not permit the Soviet Union to hang the proverbial sword of Damocles over the collective heads of our European allies. Now it is 2019, and the world hasn’t been bipolar for a very long time. The list of countries with lethal mid- and longer range missiles has grown exponentially, as has the number of countries who have nuclear weapons. We cannot continue to operate as if the only two countries that matter are Russia and the United States. Continuing with a grossly out-of-date INF Treaty—indeed, signing any bilateral agreement—makes little sense these days. It will not make the world a safer place, and it will not constrain those who desperately need constraining. It is a throwback designed for a time and place that no longer exists.