John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He was deputy director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004, serving as acting director in 2004.
The Trump administration’s plan to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is the wrong way to respond to a real problem. If carried out, it would be dangerous, destabilizing and potentially counterproductive.
The treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader MikhailGorbachev in 1987, was designed to eliminate a particularly destabilizing class of missiles — those with ranges between 300 to 3,400 miles . In the Russian case, such missiles could have hit our NATO allies with only a few minutes warning — and American missiles based in Europe could have struck the Soviet Union with equal surprise.
To be fair, the Trump administration has highlighted a real problem with the treaty, pointing out that Russia, since at least 2014, has been in violation. It is developing a missile, which NATO calls the SSC-8, that departs from the treaty by virtue of its ability to hit our European allies with little warning.
For their part, the Russians assert that U.S. missiles associated with our missile defense system also amount to a violation. Meanwhile, China — which has always eschewed arms control negotiations — is developing an intermediate-range missile, the DF-26, that can threaten our naval forces and bases in the Pacific. The United States cannot counter it with a land-based counterpart in Asia because our regional allies have no enthusiasm for such missile deployments (though U.S. weapons on submarines and ships and based in Guam balance China’s capability to a degree).
So there is a certain logic to the “withdraw” argument: Russia is in violation, Moscow counters that we are, and China has joined the club. And some withdrawal advocates add that we have transitioned from the bipolar world of U.S.-Soviet competition that produced the treaty to a more complicated world of multipolar competition in which such agreements are less relevant.
So why resist the temptation to junk the treaty? I think the reasons fall into three categories.
First, when it comes to nuclear weapons, just giving up and walking away from an arms-control treaty reverses the wise course of negotiated reductions we have followed for decades. The likely consequence of killing this treaty is that Russia will build more nukes and so will we. There are about 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world and tons of explosive nuclear material; no one needs more. While nuclear weapons can be stabilizing, that effect is most apparent when there is a degree of cross-national transparency codified in arms control agreements.
Moreover, walking away from this agreement distracts from the most basic truth about nuclear weapons: They are dangerous. The more weapons there are, scattered among more countries, ungoverned by international accords, the greater the likelihood of miscalculation or accidental launch — and the world has had a few close calls.
Second, this is wrong example to set for aspiring nuclear states such as North Korea and Iran. If the big guys can’t restrain the nuclear impulse, why should they? This is the absolute wrong moment to telegraph that to the Iranians, with President Trump having already jettisoned the U.S. nuclear agreement with them — and to Pyongyang, which has yet to follow through on its denuclearization pledges.
Third, there’s a better way out of the INF Treaty dilemma. Why not try to turn it into an opportunity, as former U.S. senator Sam Nunn has suggested? Use the six-month withdrawal notice the treaty provides to follow through on the “Strategic Stability” talks that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin promised at their summit. In those, look for ways to resolve differences on this through inspections, information exchange and other measures of transparency. If that is impossible, at least try to renew momentum on arms reductions more broadly, recalling that our major nuclear agreement with Russia, New START, is set to expire in 16 months.
And here’s a radical idea: If we really are in the new world of multipolar competition described in the administration’s Defense Policy Review, why not try to pull China into such talks, either with the United States and Russia — or after the two of them come to some accord? Call Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s bluff as the great defender of multilateralism! Sure, the chances of success are low — but what’s to lose? There’s even something to be gained in global opinion if Beijing rebuffs this.
Without such a push, there are only three things that are going to happen. We will see unconstrained and destabilizing nuclear competition among superpowers; we will reinforce the message to others that nuclear weapons are the sine qua non of power; and the United States will be blamed for pulling out of yet another international agreement — one in which, ironically, the other side is arguably more at fault.