U.S. Withdrawal From the INF Treaty: Why and What Now?

On Feb. 1, the Trump administration announced it will pull the US out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF), thus undoing one of the pillars of global security and potentially plunging the world into a new nuclear arms race.  The 1987 signing of this treaty by US President Ronald Reagan and then Soviet Union Premier Mikhail Gorbachov is often called the beginning of the end of the cold war.  At the time, it prohibited a whole class of extremely dangerous and destabilizing nuclear weapons from being deployed by both nations. But more, it began a period of sustained negotiations vastly reducing US and (now) Russian nuclear arsenals. 

Why were these missiles so dangerous? Their shorter range and proposed deployment in Europe meant their time in flight was far shorter, making them more difficult to detect and vastly reducing the threat assessment time. They would have literally put the world on hair-trigger edge of Armageddon. President Reagan affirmed the importance of the INF with his assertion, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”  Such dramatic and hard-earned wisdom appears to have been lost on our current leaders.

President Trump based his decision to withdraw from this seminal treaty on the accusation of Russia’s earlier deployment of its 9M729 cruise missile, saying this had already violated the treaty. The Russians, of course, deny this, and assert the planned US missile defense system in Poland will actually violate the treaty. This is what we did during the cold war — exchange allegations, and build more missiles.

 By ending participation in this treaty, the US will be free to develop its own shorter range “lower yield” nuclear missiles, which Trump had already proposed in his 2018 nuclear posture review.  Most experts assess this expansion of US nuclear capabilities is in reality directed at China and the perceived challenges in the South China Sea. There were of course many avenues to address legitimate security concerns within the framework of our international agreements, including negotiating an expansion of the INF to include China. But Trump instead chose to flaunt this long-established framework, once again demonstrating the peril our international order based on rules and agreements faces with an administration that emphasizes “America First.”

Representatives of civil society, arms-control experts and global security analysts from around the world have roundly decried this reckless step. Trump’s decision comes at a time when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of the doomsday clock to two minutes to midnight and a majority of the world’s nations have adopted a UN treaty instead to eliminate nuclear weapons. Despite all these warnings and a clear majority of US public opinion opposed to the expansion of nuclear armaments, President Trump has chosen to open the way to a new and criminally dangerous nuclear arms race.

President Putin, of course, responded to Trump’s threats by announcing Russia would withdraw from the INF treaty if the US did. In the face of such monarchical, tit-for-tat chest-thumping, it is easy to feel we as citizens have little influence. In fact, the United Nation’s nuclear arms office UNFOLD ZERO cited these developments as a “defect in democracy” in our respective nations.  But, at least in the United States, we do have opportunities to influence our legislators and engage the broader public in this critically important issue.

Representatives of civil society from 40 countries have sent a joint appeal to Presidents Trump and Putin calling on them to preserve the INF Treaty and resolve nuclear-weapons and security issues through negotiation rather than confrontation. It also calls on legislatures to refuse to authorize funding for nuclear weapons systems which the INF Treaty bans.

For our part, we in the US need to rally support for two important bills that have been introduced in Congress.  One is a re-introduction of the by-now familiar Markey-Lieu bill restricting presidential authorization for a nuclear attack without explicit congressional approval.  Even more significant is H.R. 4415, a bill just introduced by House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-WA) that prohibits the United States from any “first use” of nuclear weapons.  This bill has been co-sponsored in the Senate by Mass. Senator Elizabeth Warren.  (As a point of information, China already has such an announced “no first use” policy)

As informed activists, we need to do everything we can to alert our fellow citizens to the danger of this head-long rush into a renewed nuclear arms race.  And we immediately need to contact our representatives in Congress to support these two vital bills.