Arms control treaties during the peak of the Cold War competition led to a stabilizing impact by moderating growing mistrust, acute arms race and war intensity between the U.S. and USSR (now Russia). The two superpowers negotiated a series of treaties that not only moderated confrontation between them but also served as a catalyst for other states in order to constrain severe arms race problems globally. All the U.S. leaders throughout considered the value of negotiations, confidence-building measures and effectiveness of the nuclear arms control arrangements to stabilize nuclear deterrence and prevent war-like trends. Indeed, the arms control armaments promote deterrent stability, create trust between the two rival states and contribute to the security of both the negotiators. The arms control culture led to build confidence in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, and strengthened the nuclear taboo and normative notion associated with the non-use of nuclear weapons. The negotiations also resulted into rules-based mechanisms that in turn increased stability and minimized fear of war thereby offering the two rivals with an opportunity to pursue socio-economic growth and broader national political objectives. This is why the U.S. and USSR never considered nuclear talk and negations as a sign of weakness but a rational policy option to mitigate fearful competing trends. With this rational strategic mindset, the leadership of the U.S. and USSR crafted a series of bilateral agreements that verifiably reduced the two superpowers’ strategic nuclear arsenals by more than 85 percent during the peak of the Cold War.
One of those agreements, the INF treaty, initiated in 1987, and bilaterally the most comprehensive arrangement with a far-reaching impact, led to restraining both the U.S. and Russia from developing nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Moreover, the two states agreed to pursue verifiable removal of 2,692 missiles deployed in Europe and the withdrawal of thousands of tactical nuclear weapons from forward-deployed locations. The treaty yielded result-oriented impact by building trust and strategic stability between the two states thereby becoming a pillar of European security architecture and setting normative trends globally in order to control horizontal and vertical proliferation.
The Trump administration has lately pulled out of the U.S.’ obligations under the INF treaty with Russia that was built over decades with consistent efforts and hard work by multiple U.S. administrations. It seems that Trump is further prepared to dismantle the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) that was signed by President Obama with an expiry deadline in 2021. The New START reduced the deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals to their lowest level since the 1960s. It built on previously agreed systems of notification, verification, and inspection. To date, the two sides have exchanged more than 10,000 notifications of movement of delivery systems and have conducted dozens of on-site verification inspections on each other’s territory. If New START expires, there will be no legally binding, verifiable limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in nearly half a century.
The argument is that the broader arms control culture will be adversely affected in the wake of the demise of the INF and the New START treaties. There is a greater risk of a new intermediate-range, ground-based missile arms race between the U.S. and Russia, in Europe and the broader Asia-Pacific. Death of these treaties will also have a destabilizing impact on the broader non-proliferation regime thereby increasing proliferation trends and decreasing hope for global nuclear disarmament.
Reasons for the Demise of the Treaty
President Trump follows a policy of isolationism. His unilateral withdrawals from a number of other arrangements such as Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have led to risking confidence in the institutions. His isolationist policy has created division and dissatisfaction within its alliance systems such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and EU partners, and weakened their cohesion in Asia. His foreign policy is largely destructive and destabilizing. He lacks the political skill, will and spirit to initiate constructive diplomatic dialogue with Russia and China in order to fix the INF treaty instead of dismantling it.
Trump’s decision for the suspension of the treaty came in the backdrop of the claim that Russia has developed and fielded a missile system, the Novator 9M729, with a range which violates the INF treaty and challenges the Euro-Atlantic security. Russia, in turn, denied these charges and blamed the U.S. for producing the Mk-41 Vertical Launching System (which is capable of holding a variety of missiles including cruise missiles) for missile interceptors at the Aegis Ashore facility in Romania and Poland. The Mk-41 launcher can be used to fire defensive (surface-to-air) as well as offensive (surface-to-surface) missiles by upgrading software, loading different missiles, and feeding different targeting data. For Russia, the Mk-41 class multi-purpose launcher can eventually lead to the violation of the INF treaty. Arguably, the two states still hold the diplomatic potential to address these bilateral differences in the interest of broader strategic stability but seemingly there is no political will in the U.S. to retain arms control in practice.
Notably, the U.S.’ security competition with China is a major driving factor that has encouraged it to exit from the treaty. It goes without saying that the U.S.’ departure is stirred by China’s mounting challenge to its supremacy in the Asia-Pacific. China is not a party to this treaty, therefore, the real concerns are attached to China’s growing influence, its investment in ground-based cruise and ballistic missiles, and future military modernization plans. Thus the U.S. believes that the INF treaty prohibits it from acquiring and fielding more missiles and weapon systems in Asia.
The U.S. maintains its resilience in the Asia-Pacific through maintaining a consistent military force in the region thereby introducing military reforms and modernization plans, adopting new operational concepts and capabilities to changing character of warfare that in turn creates a vicious cycle of arms competition among regional states. In the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), President Trump stated that the U.S. needs more nuclear capabilities at its disposal to close the imagined credibility gap. Trump administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget request would continue plans to expand U.S. nuclear weapon capabilities. The U.S. will continue to modernize all three legs of its strategic nuclear triad along with the maintenance of non-strategic nuclear weapons. All these evolving trends suggest the U.S. military’s growing assertiveness and its preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region has led President Trump to pull out of the INF treaty which, as a consequence, would have global domino arms race effect.
Impact on U.S.-Russia Arms Control Arrangements
The U.S. is yet to devise any strategy to prohibit Russia from building and fielding more intermediate-range missiles in the wake of the demise of the INF treaty. The U.S.’ decision to withdraw from the treaty will not convince Russia to get back to compliance. Instead, it may unleash a dangerous missile race between the two states. It will also adversely impact the extension of the New START treaty – the treaty that has replaced the START I treaty of 1991 and superseded the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) of 2002.
The New START limits the two sides’ long-range missiles and bombers and caps the warheads they carry to no more than 1,550 each. Unfortunately, voices within the circle of Trump administration are not in favor of the extension of the New START treaty. Notably, the demise of the New START will leave the two states with no legally-binding verification regime on restraining and regulating their largest nuclear stockpiles. The world will fall back into an era of costly arms race like that of pre-1972 (before signing the SALT I agreement). Russia, in this case, has no restrictions and it can march ahead swiftly with the development and fielding of short and medium-range ground-launched nuclear-capable missiles. A renewed arms race between the U.S. and Russia to develop and field intermediate-range missiles systems will increase instability not only in Europe but also in the Asia-Pacific.
The Coming Arms Race in Europe
The U.S. withdrawal has led to dissatisfaction, division and mistrust with its EU partners. This, in turn, could inevitably reduce the U.S.’ role as a leader in regulating the global nuclear order, thereby encouraging more states to act on their own. Russia’s arms build-up and fielding of missile systems will demand a strong NATO response, including renewed nuclear deployments by the EU states. Consequently, the U.S. will be compelled to install more intermediate-range missiles in Europe that in turn would destabilize the broader European region. Poland, the Baltic states, and other countries in this part of Europe are concerned about Russia’s role to weaken the NATO.
Destabilizing Trends in Asia
The demise of the treaty will lead to an arms race between the U.S. and China in the Asia-Pacific. China has been developing missile-delivery systems for some time. Although China’s nuclear stockpile is quite moderate and comprehensive – below 300 – compared to approximately 7,000 and 6,500 Russian and U.S. warheads, respectively. The downfall of the INF treaty and the deployment of China-specific missiles by the U.S. could compel China to introduce response measures such as rapidly expanding its warhead numbers and missile-delivery systems to safeguard its own security interests in the region.
North Korea has been developing long-range ballistic missiles. The U.S.’ diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea are bound to fail. As a result, Pyongyang will be compelled to further modernize its missile systems. The U.S. allies such as South Korea and Japan, along with its arch-rival Iran, may reconsider the nuclear option in order to enhance their military power to gain a more assertive strategic role in Asia and the Middle East respectively.
Finally, the U.S.-China arms race and India’s hedge against China may lead to creating a vicious cycle of security and power competition between India and Pakistan, as there is no arms control arrangement between them. Pakistan did propose a nuclear restraint regime (NRR) in 1999 but India categorically refused to accept it. India has never initiated negotiations with its rivals as it considers negotiations a sign of weakness. India is extensively modernizing its technology and accumulating power in the backdrop of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver granted by the U.S. offering India privileges of an NPT-state. India’s unchecked military modernization as a non-NPT state undermines the global diplomatic values, while risking the confidence in the global institutions. Current Indian Hindutva inspired policies have lead to more instability all around and evolving arms control crisis would encourage a renewed arms race problem in South Asia.
The disappearance of the INF treaty will certainly create a security dilemma resulting in a spiral of action-reaction arms build-up across the region and globe. The demise of the INF treaty will fuel further arms race and mistrust between rival states driving other countries to acquire more weapons, thereby increasing the risks of accidental war, miscalculation and strategic instability. The global arms control crisis will lead to encourage nuclear proliferation trends driving virtual nuclear weapons states to become actual nuclear weapon states. It is imperative that the U.S. and Russia open up avenues for cooperation and discussions on preserving the New START while convincing others to follow the lead.
In Asia, it is important that the U.S. and China open a constructive dialogue in order to strike a separate bilateral arms control mechanism and accommodating each other to avoid miscalculation and confrontation while promoting shared economic, political, and security goals in Asia. However, the cost for China to join the existing INF treaty seems high at this stage, therefore, new momentum needs to be built on a bilateral arrangement. India and Pakistan must keep their arsenals within the parameters of credible minimum deterrence to ensure security while safeguarding, not challenging regional stability. The two states should bring the NRR into discussion for the institutionalization of an early arms control arrangement to achieve regional stability and secure peace for the progress and betterment of the people of this region.
The writer is a PhD in International Security and Nuclear Non-Proliferation from University of Leicester, UK and is associate professor in the Department of International Relations at NUML, Islamabad.
E-mail: [email protected]
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