United States President Donald Trump confirmed last week that the US will be pulling out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, an agreement signed in 1987 that prohibits both countries from possessing, producing or test-flying ground-launched nuclear cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometres. Arguing that Russia had violated the pact, Trump suggested that the US would not let Russia “go out and do weapons we’re not allowed to.”
Washington has been accusing Moscow of violating this pact for quite some time now, with even Barack Obama accusing Russia of the same in 2014, though he chose not to withdraw from the treaty, under pressure from European leaders. Interestingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself had declared in 2007 that the treaty no longer served Russia’s interests.
Trump’s announcement, too, has been criticised by the Europeans, with Germany urging Washington to consider the consequences both for Europe and for future disarmament efforts. Russia, of course, has condemned the withdrawal, saying it was tantamount to blackmail and warning that it would be “a very dangerous step.” Moscow is underlining that the Russian response to a US withdrawal would be “to act to restore the nuclear defence balance,” which basically is a threat to push for an arms race.
By banning all nuclear and non-nuclear missiles with short and medium ranges except sea-launched weapons, the INF treaty has for decades enhanced the security of the US and its allies. But by constraining the US from developing new weapons, it has also made it difficult for Washington to respond to new challenges. Washington has been concerned about Russia’s new medium-range missile, the Novator 9M729 or the SSC-8, developed in breach of the INF treaty, which will allow Russia to launch a nuclear strike at NATO countries at short notice.
More significantly, it is China which has had a free run so far in developing and deploying intermediate range missiles as it is not under the purview of the INF. China’s Dong Feng-26 ballistic missile, which has a range of 3,000-4,000 km, was deployed in 2015, allowing it to target most US bases in the Pacific.
The global nuclear arms control architecture is crumbling today as it is no longer able to respond to the underlying shift in global power realities. But is the failure of arms control something that should be surprising? Or is it that all arms control must fail. If arms control is needed in a strategic relationship because the states in question might go to war, it will be impractical for that very reason of need, whereas, if arms control should prove to be available, it will be irrelevant. This has been called the arms control paradox.
The Cold War record shows that both the so-called status quo and revisionist powers, the US and the Soviet Union respectively, have been more or less equally responsible for reneging on their arms control promises.
Not only did both of them attempt to gain nuclear superiority during the Cold War, despite a plethora of arms control agreements, but they were also equally responsible for encouraging proliferation. As the great powers try to maximise their share of world power, their interests inevitably come into conflict with the arms control agreements, inevitably leading to their unravelling.
While one can give some credit to arms control for maintaining strategic stability and creating norms of behaviour, the fact remains that even one of the most in-depth agreements in terms of details of provisions, verification measures and leading to regime strengthening, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), was rejected by the US even when it faced no great power as a rival in the near term.
This is significant because if even one of the strongest of arms control measures is not deemed worthy of acceptance, then there is some problem with the very idea of arms control, rather than its specific provisions.
Indeed, disenchantment with arms control has been growing since the 1980s. After a brief period of détente in the 1970s, the two superpowers again started treating each other as antagonists and this affected all the arms control measures agreed to during détente.
The signing of a plethora of arms control agreements during détente was seen as the success of arms control rather than a reflection of the relaxation of tensions during détente. And so, when after détente, the superpowers gave arms control a short shrift, there was a lot of disappointment.
The tectonic plates of international politics are shifting today with China’s rise and the US-Soviet era arms control architecture has little or no relevance, so it is inevitable that it will come under assault. The arms control architecture which many take as sacrosanct today has always been compromised by great power politics, and it will continue to be the case in the future.
Major powers have always viewed arms control measures as by-products of underlying political realities. There is enough evidence to suggest that while attempts at arms control have at best been quite useless with respect to the great powers themselves, they have deftly used various arms control provisions to constrain the strategic autonomy of other states in the international system. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was one such measure, where the five nuclear powers decided to
constrain the behaviour of non-nuclear states.
Today, as China’s rise alters the political contours of the global order, the INF Treaty is going to be one of many casualties of the changing power dynamic. With or without Trump, the old arms control architecture was going to collapse. Trump is only doing the inevitable.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)