The INF Treaty is done, but lessons for policy remain
(Bulletin of Atomic Scientists) The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty or INF, ends on August 2, bringing to a close one of the most remarkable chapters in arms control history. There is much about the INF story that bears recalling, as it provides lessons for the conduct of US diplomacy and policy making in the uncharted waters ahead.
For decades, the combination of deterrence and arms control has shaped US policy. However, the strategic landscape and weapons technologies have changed dramatically since the INF negotiations in the 1980’s, in which I played a role as deputy negotiator. Under the Trump Administration, it increasingly appears that the policy balance is swinging to greater and perhaps sole reliance on deterrence. The administration has spoken about 21st-century arms control, but beyond involving China, it is unclear what this means. The US-Russian strategic dialogue that got underway in July is encouraging, but it remains to be seen whether new approaches to stemming the nuclear arms race, as well as rivalries in space and cyber warfare, will emerge.
The INF Treaty was hardly a foregone conclusion at the time of its signing in 1987. Remarkably, the outcome hewed closely to President Reagan’s famous zero proposal in 1981. The agreement remains unprecedented, eliminating all US and Russian missiles between the ranges of 500 to 5500 kilometers. The two countries destroyed a total of 2,692 ballistic and cruise missiles by the treaty’s deadline of June 1, 1991, with verification that had not been imagined as possible before.
The impact of the treaty extended well beyond its arms control achievements and halted the widespread anti-nuclear demonstrations that roiled both Europe and America in the 1970s and 1980s. More important, the treaty underwrote the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace that seemed to hold real promise after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In addition, the treaty set the stage for US President H.W. Bush to remove nearly all tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and Asia and aboard US Navy ships—in other words, expanding nuclear reductions to include weapons outside the parameters of “intermediate-range.” Never before in the post-World War II era had Europeans been able to experience life largely free of the fear of nuclear war.
At the heart of the complex story of the INF Treaty were the two signatories of the treaty: President Reagan gained a deep disaffection for nuclear weapons, perhaps as only a person who held the authority to unleash unimaginable destruction could feel. He came to think increasingly that nuclear dangers must be reduced. At that historical juncture, he found a partner in Mikhail Gorbachev, who shared Reagan’s views on nuclear weapons. Gorbachev also saw the need to end a mindless and expensive arms race that would only impede the reforms he sought for the Soviet Union.