National Security & Defense

Good Riddance to the INF Treaty

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the State Department, November 20, 2018. (File photo: Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The Trump administration today suspended the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, giving formal notice that the U.S. intends to withdraw in six months. It’s the right policy to counter increasing Russian cheating and to ensure that the U.S. can adapt to the changing strategic environment in the Pacific. Besides that, it’s a policy this magazine has advocated for decades.

In the March 4, 1988, issue of National Review, David J. Trachtenberg suggested that the treaty, long opposed by NR’s editors, was an “Invitation to Cheat.” Without “safeguards” to ensure Soviet compliance with the treaty’s ban on intermediate-range nuclear and conventional missiles, he predicted, “the INF treaty will be an exercise in self-deception” for the U.S. and NATO. We would comply with its terms, the Russians would flout them, and arms-control advocates would insist that the only path forward was to redouble our commitment to the treaty.

For a time, both the U.S. and Russia followed the INF, which was struck by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 and ended the tense buildup of Pershing II and SS-20 missiles in Europe and Russia. But recent history has since vindicated Trachtenberg’s prediction. Russia has built, tested, and deployed intermediate missiles in brazen violation of the treaty beginning at least in 2014, and probably before.

In theory, the INF forbids both the U.S. and Russia to develop ground-based conventional and nuclear missiles of a certain range. In practice, the treaty constrains only one of its signatories — the United States — to our profound disadvantage. Evidence began to mount in 2008 that Russia was developing missiles that violated the INF, but the Obama administration remained silent, pushing ahead with the misbegotten New START arms-control treaty and waiting until 2011 to mention its concerns to Congress. In 2014, the administration declared for the first time that Russia was in violation of the treaty for testing a ground-launched missile. No matter: In 2017, Russia deployed that missile, the SSC-8, near Volgograd.

Obama’s embrace of more arms control and his gentle efforts to coax the Russians back into compliance failed. Trump’s break with that unsuccessful approach is welcome and, by the way, is a step that he almost certainly wouldn’t take were he secretly working to advance Russian national interests.

Russian misbehavior aside, this ostensibly bilateral treaty is obsolete in a multilateral world, giving a strategic advantage to other adversaries. China has aggressively expanded its intermediate-range missiles to assert its influence in the Pacific while the U.S. is constrained by the INF, threatening both our posture in that theater and the security of our Pacific allies.

Advocates of the deal insist that leaving the treaty removes any chance that Russia would return to compliance, but Moscow has had ample opportunity to do that already. They insist, too, that leaving confers no advantages. But there are significant costs to remaining in the treaty, which complicates the testing of American missile-defense systems and sends a signal that the U.S. is not serious about enforcing the terms of its agreements with other countries.

The INF set up an enforcement regime that was reasonably effective in the first decades of its signing. It no longer works, and it hamstrings us in other key domains. Barack Obama forgot Reagan’s doctrine that “to be serious about arms control is to be serious about compliance.” Trump remembered it, and not a moment too soon.

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