The INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty was instrumental in easing tensions between the US and the Soviet Union and avoiding the Cold War breaking out into a ‘Hot’ one. The bilateral treaty banned and eliminated all ground-based missiles, nuclear and conventional, with a range from 500-5500km. However, whether it still remains relevant in the 21st century is up for
debate. Although Donald Trump’s recent announcement that the US will be pulling out of the treaty drew widespread criticism from many media sources, it is easy to overlook the advantages such a move would give to the US.
In an increasingly multi-polar world marked by the rapid rise of China within the last few decades, Russia isn’t the only nuclear power to worry about. China’s rapid military modernisation and North Korea’s recent escalation of nuclear tensions pose a substantial threat to US military dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.
Indeed, China is set to overtake the US as the largest defence spender in the region, and is rapidly increasing deployment of short to medium range missiles both to intimidate regional US allies Taiwan and Japan, but also to implement its A2/AD strategy to deny the US access to the South China Sea. Therefore, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review highlighted an increasing need for low yield, rapid response missile systems for disarming enemy systems, as deterrence, and as a signalling of intent to reassure allies.
The advantage of ground-based missiles is that they are much cheaper than submarine and surface ship based missiles, and used alongside these help form a flexible toolkit designed to respond to all situations. Of course, all this wouldn’t be necessary if China were willing to join the INF treaty. They have repeatedly refused to do so on the grounds of ‘national interest.’ In terms of global power politics it makes little sense for them to do so.
But there also remains an issue with the principle of disarmament that the treaty espouses. Neo-realists such as Kenneth Waltz argue in favour of nuclear weapons as a means of preserving peace, as the advent of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) ensures the potential cost of full-out war between states is too high when nukes are in play. It’s therefore likely that the proliferation of nukes is actually the only reason WW3 hasn’t broken out yet. It has also contributed to the easing of tensions between India and Pakistan since they both developed nukes in 1998.
Of course, there is also the argument that there is no reason to remain in a treaty being blatantly ignored by the other party. Russia has been violating the treaty since 2014 with the mass production of the SSC-8 ground-based cruise missile which just about place London within its sights. Given Russia’s similar disregard for other international laws in the face of heavy economic sanctions; it’s annexation of Crimea, hacking of the US election and intervention in Syria being case in points, the US has continued to lose the global respect it once commanded. Combined with the US’ recent assertive responses to the North Korean and Syrian threats, withdrawal from the INF would reinforce the message that the new administration is not one to mess around with - something vital to counter the current shifting of global power to the East.
However, a more effective solution would be to not merely withdraw from the treaty, but to form a new treaty which places a ceiling, not total ban, on the deployment of ground-based missiles. This would ensure the preservation of peace through deterrence and allow the superpowers to play their war games, ensuring they remain in the treaty, but within limits due to the ceiling.
Therefore, despite the heavy backlash the decision to withdraw received in the media, it is clear it wasn’t motivated solely by a desire to win support amongst Trump’s core voters. Rather it was also a strategic decision aimed at allowing the US reassert its dominance on the world stage, thereby ensuring the dominancy of the liberal democratic values we are so used to taking for granted.