Michael KreponDeath of a Treaty

Lyric of the week:

I wrest the waters, fight Neptune’s waters
Sail through the sorrows of life’s marauders
Unrepenting, often empty
Sail on, sail on sailor

— Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys, “Sail On Sailor”

The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty died last week at age 32. As treaty-years between major powers go, that’s a full lifetime. (Treaty years equal dog years multiplied by two.) The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty also lasted for three decades. The cause of death in both cases was changing geopolitical circumstances. One major power or the other thought it would be better off ridding itself of these instruments of international law. The world will not be healthier as a result of these losses. When something related to nuclear arms control is replaced by nothing, major powers do not become safer as a result.

NATO and the Russian Federation benefitted from the absence of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles for three whole decades. During that time, there were no war scares, no fears of surprise missile strikes against command bunkers and cities and no need for new and better missiles of this kind. These days are gone.

The INF Treaty was Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev’s most historic achievement. They utterly disrespected deterrence theology and war-fighting plans based on stepped up rungs on escalation ladders. They couldn’t have cared less. They agreed that a nuclear war could not be won and must never be fought, and they were both in a position to override their nuclear-military-industrial complexes. The INF Treaty was the result.

Moscow found the INF Treaty inconvenient before Washington did. After the Russian Federation’s economy recovered from a Great Depression following the demise of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin green-lighted a new ground-launched cruise missile that was clearly treaty noncompliant. Why? Outsiders don’t know for sure. Maybe he wanted to push back against NATO expansion and missile defense deployments. Maybe he wanted what China, India and Pakistan were deploying. Maybe his nuclear-military-industrial complex was working from muscle memory. Or maybe it was something else. Causation matters less than result: The missile Putin determined he needed to have was a material breach of the INF Treaty.

To cover this transgression, Moscow raised compliance concerns of its own. The Obama administration instinctively wanted to adjudicate these matters. Russian concerns over U.S. actions could have been addressed, but this would have meant destroying treaty-noncompliant missiles, which wasn’t in the cards. The Trump administration had no interest in a diplomatic resolution, even if one were possible. It went through the motions and then announced withdrawal, which occurred on August 2nd.

What comes next will raise everyone’s discomfort zone. As in the past, there will be countermoves by the Pentagon that will increase temperatures. Moscow will again raise warning flags. When the Soviet Union deployed new intermediate-range missiles the last time around, the Carter and Reagan administrations decided to counter with nuclear-armed, ground-based, intermediate-range missiles in five NATO basing countries. These plans were so unnerving to the Kremlin that, after NATO deployments began, Moscow was ready to deal, resulting in the INF Treaty abolishing every last one.

Three decades later, it will be hard to find any NATO country to accept deployments of conventional, let alone nuclear-armed, ground-based, intermediate-range missiles. Perhaps new NATO members in Eastern Europe might be willing to host these missiles, because U.S. support personnel if not troops would be part of the package.

Once again there will be a hullaballoo from Moscow, but this time around, the Pentagon’s moves will mostly be compensatory rather than in kind. This means new and better cruise missiles that can be launched from the sea or by airpower. New theater missile defense deployments are possible. New hypervelocity standoff weapons could well be part of this mix. The Kremlin might take some satisfaction that, in terms of nuclear-armed, ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles, it has moved Pawns forward on the chessboard without retaliation in kind, but the board will become more threatening to Moscow in due course.

It was Washington rather than Moscow that took the initiative to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, which backstopped reductions of over 80 percent in strategic offensive forces. The George W. Bush administration was still in an imperious mood in the unipolar moment after the Cold War ended, the public was feeling deeply vulnerability after 9/11, and the Kremlin was in no position to object. Nor was it in a position to oppose treaty amendments that would have allowed Bush, John Bolton and lesser Vulcans to do what they felt was necessary to counter missile proliferation. But negotiating updates to the ABM Treaty was deemed too much a bother. The goal then, as now, is freedom of action.

Without the ABM Treaty and the INF Treaty, more rather that less nuclear offenses are in our future. Does this that we’re headed toward a new nuclear arms race? This is the question foremost in mind, but it’s actually not the best framework for characterizing what lies ahead. Nothing in front of us can top the arms racing of the past, especially during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Money is tighter now in Russia, and many Americans have recognized that nuclear weapons aren’t all that useful.

A better framework for assessing what lies ahead is nuclear danger. As the competition heats up, nuclear dangers will certainly rise. Treaties are the best means to control and reduce nuclear dangers, but the norm of treaty making has taken huge hits. At the same time, new technologies lend themselves to finding and exploiting vulnerabilities — and they don’t require nuclear detonations to be effective. The competition will accelerate even more if the Trump administration, as Bolton has repeatedly advertised, pulls out of the last remaining bilateral treaty limiting longer-range missiles and bombers.

This treaty, New START, signed by Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, entered into force a year later. Only eight years old, in dog- and treaty years, New START remains healthy and worth keeping, especially since it provides for on-site inspections and there is no better replacement at hand.

A new construction project will be needed for multilateral nuclear arms control, but this will require extending constraints on U.S. and Russian force levels. This will be complicated and take time to negotiate. Donald Trump and Bolton aren’t up to this challenge. They are disruptors and tear down artists, not chess players.

The INF, ABM and New START treaties have helped prevent mushroom clouds and have kept the nuclear peace during and after the Cold War. The thickest strands of this nuclear safety net for the major powers are being willfully cut, one by one. The last load-bearing strand is about to be severed.

The hard work of previous leaders is being cast aside, as if deterrence alone is sufficient to make us safer. But deterrence is the sharp end of the spear. Deterrence is about the threat of horrific destruction. Once deterrence turns into nuclear use, mushroom clouds can be constrained only by the questionable assumption of escalation control.

Deterrence alone is dangerous; well-crafted arms control provides necessary reassurance. Deterrence without reassurance is dangerous — and it’s about to become more dangerous.


  1. jeannick (History)

    What exactly is the point of spending years writing a treaty , months of bitter arguments to pass it through congress to see it discarded by one man in hours ?

  2. Anon2 (History)

    Prof Krepon — the confirming news of the Russian nuclear cruise missile combined with the drone 100 MT seaboard busting “torpedos” for “third strike” is right of out Dr. Strangelove i.e. a 1) Doomsday Device and a 2) Doomsday Gap. Someone has to save the world from this madness. Please write an essay addressing this, including potential ways out.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      The people who ought to be most scared about this weapon are the ones working on it.

  3. E. Rhym (History)

    Considering that geopolitical change over time is a constant in international politics, as is technological development, a strong case can be made that formal arms control agreements should be limited in duration.
    Such comment is not meant to detract from the relative merits of INF. Rather the demise of INF demonstrates once again that arms control agreements are a product of the security environment in which they are negotiated. In tacit recognition of this reality, New START was negotiated to be in effect for a period of only ten years. The treaty’s extension provision was included as an option, just like its provisions to capture emerging technologies. If the Parties do not agree to extend–perhaps in part because they cannot agree to limit emerging technologies under the terms of this agreement–then one can assess the relative merits of the treaty to the new geopolitical and technological environment have diminished vis-a-vis other ways to address security concerns and reduce risks of military conflict. This does not necessarily mean formal arms control is dead, even for the foreseeable future regardless who wins election in 2020. To claim otherwise stands in contrast to the president’s own stated interest in arms control, however conditional his parameters for pursuing such a policy may be.

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