Michael KreponTrashing the INF Treaty

Quote of the week:

“Wake the damn Bambino. I’ll drill him in the ass.” — Attributed to Pedro Martinez, 2004, the year when the Red Sox broke the curse of not winning a World Series after trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees 86 years earlier.

Donald Trump announced at a campaign rally on Saturday that he will walk away from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a move that his National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has long endorsed. The reasons given for withdrawal are Russia’s deployment of a prohibited ground-based cruise missile and China’s stockpile of INF-range missiles.

There are effective treaty-compliant counters to the Russian violation by means of air-delivered and sea-based capabilities that the Pentagon is already pursuing. The White House could also leverage Vladimir Putin to return to treaty compliance by linking restraint on additional missile defense deployments in Europe to the removal of Russia’s noncompliant missiles. But neither Trump nor Bolton has demonstrated a fondness for diplomacy or an interest in reaffirming the INF Treaty. This move isn’t about linkage; it’s about freedom of U.S. action and a deep, abiding distrust of treaties. Trump’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty fits into an “America First” strategy that undermines diplomatic ties. That’s the take away by U.S. friends and allies — along with a foreboding sense of an intensified nuclear competition.

Highlighting the China angle for exiting the INF Treaty is new. Previously, Moscow complained more about this than Washington and Asian countries haven’t been overly alarmed about China’s nuclear-tipped missiles. Instead, they appear far more concerned about China’s growing conventional seapower and its investment strategies that are hard to turn down, but that offer too little in return for massive debt.

As in Europe, the Trump administration will have a hard time finding states in Asia willing to deploy U.S. nuclear-tipped missiles. Thirty-five years ago, the United Kingdom, West Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium agreed to deploy 572 nuclear-armed U.S. “Euro-missiles.” None of them appear willing to accept them now.

Nor is there likely to be enthusiasm among Washington’s friends or allies in Asia about hosting nuclear-armed, land-based missiles. Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam all seem unlikely to host these missiles. That would leave Guam, 4,000 kilometers from Beijing and 3,000 kilometers from Shanghai — hardly a decisive strategic counter, or a better one than sea-based options. The only argument for basing in Guam is that nuclear-tipped missiles can reach targets in China much faster than the aircraft based there — but not as fast as sea-based options.

The Asian country that has the most reason to be concerned by Chinese INF-range missiles is India. Indian strategic analysts have taken note of these missiles that are mostly deployed on the Tibetan Plateau — an all-azimuth basing location. New Delhi has responded in deliberate fashion with the 4,000 kilometer Agni IV and the 8,000 km Agni V missile. There’s no clamor within India for Washington to trash the INF Treaty, nor any inclination to rely on American INF-range missiles based in Asia. New Delhi believes deeply in its strategic autonomy; it’s not going to contract out deterrence to Washington. Nor are friends and allies that do rely on extended U.S. deterrence, whether in Europe or Asia, calling for the demise of the INF Treaty. They understand that nuclear dangers will grow in its absence and without an effective replacement.

Walking away from treaties has adverse diplomatic and strategic consequences. When the George W. Bush administration announced its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, the Kremlin responded by withdrawing from the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and its prohibition on land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads. The Kremlin is now moving forward with deployments of new “heavy” land-based missiles capable of carrying ten or more warheads. Their purpose is to defeat U.S. missile defenses. Likewise, the demise of the INF Treaty would only reinforce the nuclear competition now underway.

The missing piece here is diplomacy. Shoring up nuclear deterrence is about clarifying threats. Diplomacy is about reassurance and reducing nuclear dangers. “Strengthening” deterrence without reassurance results in increased nuclear dangers. It also highlights the importance of congressional debates over the Trump administration’s defense budget allocations.

In coming debates over steel vs. silicon — choices between familiar, costly instruments of warfare we can see vs. techniques that are invisible to the naked eye — Capitol Hill appears hopelessly behind the curve. Yes, there is greater recognition of the threat of cyber warfare in all military domains, but meaningful, significant budgetary allocation shifts from steel to silicone are hamstrung by dearly held commitments that the naked eye and congressional constituencies can appreciate. Of these, the most expensive, most disastrous if employed, and the least likely means of waging warfare are with weapon systems dedicated to nuclear exchanges. Bad budgetary choices on can easily be accentuated by the decision of the Trump administration to walk away from the INF Treaty.

Note to readers: A version of this essay appeared in Defense News on October 21st.


  1. Michael Krepon (History)

    The European Union’s reaction to Trump’s remarks about “terminating” the INF Treaty can be found here:


  2. Michael Krepon (History)

    Mikhail Gorbachev’s reaction:

    “Under no circumstances should we tear up old disarmament agreements. Do they really not understand in Washington what this could lead to?”

  3. Michael Krepon (History)

    NATO on the INF Treaty, Brussels Summit Declaration, July 11-12, 2018:

    “The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has been crucial to Euro-Atlantic security and we remain fully committed to the preservation of this landmark arms control treaty. Full compliance with the INF Treaty is essential.”

  4. Scott Monje (History)

    There has always been a likelihood that the rise of China outside the INF regime could undermine the treaty. Chinese INF has the potential to threaten one treaty partner but not the other. The ideal situation would be to facilitate Russian compliance by acquiring Chinese adherence. That will be complicated, however, by the extent to which the Chinese believe they need INF for their area denial strategy.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Hard for me to see China buying into the INF Treaty unless it perceives an existential threat to the regime, like Moscow did with the GLCMs and Pershing IIs.

  5. Toby Fenwick (History)

    As Michael argues, this is an utterly ridiculous move by an Administration hell bent on unilaterialism at the expense of successful multilateralism. Moreover, it has been done in such a cackhanded manner that the blowback is against the US, not Moscow.

    A(nother) dark day for this Administration.

  6. Matthew Harris (History)

    The Steel vs. Silicon debate has a clear ending: The government cuts the cord. If cyber warfare were to ever become an existential threat to the government, or at least appear so, the Internet as we know it would be quickly dismantled.

    This is why there is no debate over it because the answer is clear, we just haven’t hit the threshold for this yet. Although Russia and China have, and are already taking steps to segregate their domestic intra-nets from the global Internet. It can happen here, it has consequences in the form of reduced dialogue between Russians and Americans – a dialogue which forms the basis of diplomacy. This is also much easier to do if Ma Bell rises from her grave, where she was put in 1984, the same year SDI was formed. Related to this is Trump leaving the UPU, which is another form of making it difficult for people to communicate globally.

    The past years definitely feels like the “2010-2020: globalism recedes” chapter in a history textbook. Politicians don’t consider is what might come after that, although we know for a fact America will be buying a lot of nukes, bombers, submarines, and missiles because Congress already committed the funding. The only thing stopping a full-blown arms race is New Start which expires the day after 2020.

  7. oliver (History)

    Hi Michael,
    yes we europeans do not like having those nuclear missiles over here.
    BTW. I do live in Heilbronn, Germany. I was in high school when that Pershing started to burn just up the hill from here!
    Look it up.

    Cheers Oliver

  8. Anon33 (History)

    Professor Krepon,

    Could it be a rational move in game theory to motivate the Russians and Chinese to limit their buildup of new intermediate range weapons? I believe that Putin has played the U.S. well for a number of years by building up his own intermediate range weapons that have essentially no _defense_ (as opposed to a quasi-MAD quid pro quo) and has convinced the West that if he should decide to, for example, send his troops into annex the Baltics, that a Western counter would be met with his intermediate range nuclear weapons.

    The strategy of massed localized troop deployment to allow a conventional force to annex a neighboring country with little conventional losses under an intermediate range umbrella to prevent an effective NATO or U.S. response has worked well for Russia in the past and would again in the future. It’s essentially a game of “do you dare counter my move” by Russia and the behavior of the past U.S. administrations has emboldened the Russian player to repeat those moves and to defend them with the deployment of missiles in violation of the treaty.

    I don’t like the increase in nuclear armed missiles on either side, but to continue to buckle under to new Russian advances either on the ground or in the deployment of ever more aggressive weapons (destabilizing requiring an immediate second strike response) seems to have left the U.S. arms negotiators without an effective card to play in this game. So, along come Bolton who overturns the table, thereby calling Putin’s bluff.

    The U.S. economy remains much larger than Russia’s and if necessary could outbuild that opponent. Putin will need to respond with a different strategy because the former one of walking over a timid opponent who won’t call his cards has just ceased to work.

    I remain afraid for the future, but it is Putin’s aggressive game play that creates the fear. Bolton’s counter move is unfortunately what may be the optimal response.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      There are actually lots of nukes that can reach Russia. They don’t have to fly the same distance as the Russian ones.

  9. Michael Krepon (History)

    from NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg:

    “We will, of course, assess the implications for NATO allies for our security of the new Russian missiles and the Russian behavior,” Stoltenberg said. “But I don’t foresee that [NATO] allies will station more nuclear weapons in Europe as a response to the new Russian missile.”

  10. Anon33 (History)

    ‘Stoltenberg said. “But I don’t foresee that [NATO] allies will station more nuclear weapons in Europe as a response to the new Russian missile.”’

    I believe that this is true for the Western European NATO allies. The Poles judging by their volunteerism to base missile defense batteries in their country, and likely the Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians feel differently. This potential ratcheting up of the risk is not a good outcome, just the least bad, as inviting Russia to walk into the Baltics in the name of “national security” would be certainly horrible for the citizens of those countries.

  11. Michael Krepon (History)