RIP: The Demise of the INF Treaty is a Threat to Global Security

SONYA HU: In 1987, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibited the development and deployment of nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Thirty years later, President Donald Trump pulled the United States from this historic Cold War treaty, reversing years of progress with massive implications for American interests abroad. 

In his February 1 announcement, President Trump tried to justify the U.S. withdrawal by claiming it will allow the United States to counter Russian and Chinese investments, thereby strengthening U.S. security. This claim entirely ignores the logic of the security dilemma and the dynamics of power politics: Further U.S. development of intermediate-range forces will invite a tit-for-tat response from Moscow and Beijing, potentially sparking a devastating arms race between the three world powers.  

Moscow’s response to U.S. withdrawal was “instant and decisive”: Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by suspending Russia’s own recognition of the treaty and increasing their research and development efforts. As a demonstration of this commitment, Putin also announced plans to increase Russia’s efforts to develop a land-based version of the sea-based Kalibr system by 2020, which the INF Treaty would have prevented. Similarly, China is heavily reliant on intermediate-range nuclear forces, as 95 percent of its existing arsenal falls within the prohibited range. As a result, the increase in U.S. intermediate-range arms developments that the decline of the INF Treaty will bring is likely to invite symmetrical escalations in Chinese arms developments, further contributing to an arms race and threatening global security. 

 In the longer term, the greatest risk associated with the demise of the INF Treaty is its potential to jeopardize the international arms control infrastructure as a whole. The United States’ track record with multilateral agreements has become increasingly unreliable, and, in response to U.S. withdrawal from the INF, Russia is now refusing to negotiate with the United States. This has sparked fears of a complete freeze in dialogue between the two countries, which could doom the New START Treaty, the last remaining arms control agreement constraining the two nuclear arsenals, which is due to elapse in 2021. As stated by Stratfor Enterprises, an American geopolitical intelligence platform, the collapse of both the INF Treaty and New START will “all but ensure the resumption of a major arms race between the United States, China, and Russia at all operational and strategic levels.”

The implications of the United States’ withdrawal from the INF Treaty are likely to be immense. The looming arms race, further decline of already strained Sino-Russo-American ties, and the growing possibility of the demise of the New START Treaty in 2021, make it clear that Trump’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty will open a Pandora’s Box that ultimately results in the demise of international stability and the existing nuclear arms control regime. 


Sonya Hu is a freshman in the college from Missouri. She is currently majoring in Economics with a minor in Religion and Ethics in World Affairs.

Max Magid