The United States’ withdrawal from the INF treaty (Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty) is a worrying development, but we shouldn’t be surprised. This decision, alongside others such as the US’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran Nuclear Deal, is part of the US’ new-found isolationist, unilateralist approach to International Relations.
The INF treaty, signed in 1987, eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,000km from the arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union. The treaty resulted in the destruction of 2,692 missiles and their respective launchers and equipment. Trump has now decided to withdraw from this treaty based on claims that Russia broke the terms of the treaty when it deployed a new cruise missile.
In addition to this, the US is also concerned with China, Iran and North Korea. As these countries are not a party to the treaty, they are free to develop and deploy their own medium-range missiles as they please while the US is restricted in that regard.
Simply put, the US withdrawal from this treaty will serve to decrease stability around the world. The inevitable outcome of this withdrawal is the proliferation of nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles. When the US begins deploying and developing its own ballistic missiles upon officially withdrawing from the treaty, as alluded to by Trump, the US, Russia and China will quickly find themselves trapped in a nuclear arms race.
Indeed, the US with its superpower status will set the precedent to other states that utilising these weapons forms part of a foreign policy strategy, making it more likely that other states will produce ballistic missiles.
Worryingly, we could see the deployment of more ballistic missiles in strategic regions such as the Asia Pacific, the Middle East or Europe. This could not come at a worse time. Relations among The US, China and Russia are at an all-time low. The US and China are currently embroiled in an aggressive trade war and have come too close to a military confrontation in the Asia Pacific. Relations between Russia and the US are no better, with tensions over a number of issues, including Syria and Russia’s use of cyber warfare to disrupt democracies in the West. When tensions are this high and the prospect of conflict looms large, the proliferation of nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles is very dangerous.
Instead of withdrawing from the treaty, the US should be utilising its political clout to convince Russia and China that the existence and further proliferation of these weapons threaten their security interests. The US should also work alongside its allies through International institutions in condemning and preventing further proliferation. This would prove much more effective than withdrawing from the treaty. Their choice of action does not solve much.
If we take the optimal situation for all parties to be a continuance of the conditions the treaty has brought thus far, a reduction in the number of conventional and nuclear ballistic missiles, then the US’s decision to withdraw from the treaty is a poor one.
Another pertinent consideration is that the withdrawal from this treaty may start a domino effect leading to the termination of other nuclear treaties. Given the US withdrew from the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and have also recently withdrawn from the Iran Nuclear deal, this does not seem so unlikely. A particular concern is the New START treaty between the US and Russia, which Trump has criticised as a bad deal. This treaty is due to expire in 2021 and will unlikely be extended.
In light of recent actions by the US, one cannot help but question the commitment of the US to the prevention of nuclear proliferation.