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Quitting Nuke Treaties

  • James Clifton
  • Apr, 2019
  • 1220
  • Viewpoint


The following day, Russian President Vladimir Putin followed suit. This set off a six-month negotiation period during which, Americans and Russians can attempt to resolve their differences before a full withdrawal, though such a resolution seems unlikely.

There may be strategic advantages to abandoning the INF agreement. Russia has certainly violated its terms over the past decade, and remaining party to a treaty in which one signatory violates terms may limit options for the other. And then there’s the issue of China: not a signatory, China is free to develop weapons that America and Russia cannot. This is a security concern for the Americans and Russians alike.

Yet, withdrawing will ultimately weaken security for America and its western allies at a time when their alliances are already under strain. Given that strain, once the treaty is undone, it is likely to be undone for good, leaving few options to avoid the needless militarisation that will surely follow.

That’s because the treaty, a response to the remilitarisation of the late Cold War, relied on a united West. While the negotiations were conducted between America and Soviet Union, their ultimately successful outcome owed much to the unity of the western alliance and the serious consultation on arms control that occurred within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Signed in 1987, the INF Treaty emerged from the controversy over the Soviets’ 1976 deployment of the SS-20 missile. This missile served two strategic goals for the then Soviet Union: it expanded the Soviet arsenal and potentially weakened relationships between NATO states and, therefore, the alliance itself. That’s because, with its short range, the missile threatened only continental Europe. Moscow’s strategy initially worked: While European leaders wanted an immediate NATO response, American policymakers shrugged off the threat. The alliance suffered as a result.

It took more than three years for the NATO to overcome the discord. In 1979, the alliance issued a ‘dual-track’ decision that responded to the Soviet missiles by planning to deploy American intermediate-range missiles in several European countries and offering arms control negotiations on this class of weapon. Predictably, the dual-track decision angered Soviet leaders, who initially refused to negotiate until the NATO rescinded its intention to deploy. The NATO proceeded anyway.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan two weeks later, East-West relations broke down, derailing ongoing arms-control efforts. Seeing a unified response to this aggression as essential, NATO leaders created a Special Consultative Group to facilitate discussion about possible INF controls.

This strategy worked. Soon arms control became a ‘joint enterprise’. Even if opinions sometimes diverged, America worked with European policymakers to ensure that they presented a unified front during the negotiation process. Achieving this gave the administration of former president Ronald Reagan international credibility. Indeed, the head of the American negotiating team in Geneva, Paul Nitze, noted the importance of being ‘seen to be trying’. Mr. Reagan, for his part, noted that ‘this consultative process has already proven one of the most intensive and productive in the history of the North Atlantic alliance’.

In November 1983, when America finally deployed the first round of INF in Europe, the Soviets walked out of the negotiations. They didn’t return to the negotiating table for years. The Soviets’ continuing deployments of SS-20s further helped the NATO to maintain its position in western public opinion. Consultation within the NATO had helped the alliance to engineer political unity and solidarity, even helping member nations to marginalise internal dissenting opinions.

It was not until 1985 and the election of Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary of the Communist Party that the Soviets began negotiations anew, leading to the almost-successful Reykjavik Summit in 1986 and, the following year, the INF Treaty itself. It took a crisis of leadership (Mr. Gorbachev was the third Soviet leader since Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982), tremendous economic problems and eventually radical reforms to bring the Soviet Union to the negotiating table.

The key? The Soviets negotiated from a position of weakness, while America had strengthened its hand through NATO collaboration over the preceding years.

The volume of work required to negotiate the treaty, as well as the participants’ relative positions, should give pause to anyone thinking about withdrawal today. Unified western lea...

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