The Importance of the INF Treaty: Explained

On December 8th, 1987 U.S. President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a landmark agreement that ushered in an era of nuclear arms control between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers. On October 21st, 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump announced at a rally that the U.S. would withdraw from the deal on the basis that Russia has been violating the treaty for years. Failure to appreciate the significance and historical context of the treaty will result in removing the U.S. from a treaty that remains vitally important to global security.

In the 1970s, the Soviets developed and began deploying a new mid-range nuclear missile that threatened not only Europe, but Asia, North Africa and Alaska. In response, NATO pursued two tracks: deployment of comparable U.S. missiles in Western Europe, or US-Soviet negotiations to lower the number of intermediate-range missiles as much as possible. After years of on-again, off-again negotiations, the INF Treaty, which required the US and Soviets to eliminate all ground-launched missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, was signed.

The treaty was the first of its kind. It was the first treaty to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons and marked the first time the two superpowers agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals. In total, 2, 692 missiles were eliminated.

The years it took to achieve this treaty do not demonstrate a hasty compromise, rather they exhibit an impressive diplomatic effort. Despite the obvious tensions between the countries, and the many years required to come to an agreement, the treaty proved diplomatic discussions can result in smaller arsenals and steps closer to nuclear disarmament. The treaty led directly to another landmark treaty, the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which cut the Russian and American nuclear arsenals by one-third.

For years, the United States has accused Russia of violating the INF treaty by developing and testing an illegal nuclear missile. Russia denied the accusations and has accused the United States of deploying a missile defense launch system that can support banned nuclear cruise missiles. The answer to these disputes, in no uncertain terms, is not to withdraw from the treaty entirely. All diplomatic options to persuade Russia to return to compliance and address their concerns over U.S. compliance must be exhausted and then some, before withdrawing is considered.

Abandoning the treaty signals to the world that the U.S. has neither interest in the reduction of nuclear arsenals by diplomatic means, nor any respect for the history of arms control. Withdrawal will only add fuel to a nuclear arms race and increase tensions in an already fraught climate. To provide for a nuclear build-up on the European continent is to endanger U.S. allies and increase the already high risk of escalation to nuclear use. Nullifying the treaty would set the world back, and paint the U.S. as ambivalent to its traditional position as a leader in working toward nuclear-free world.