NSI Experts Weigh In: INF Treaty Withdrawal

Yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US would withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.  Our experts weighed in on this historic change in policy. 

February 2, 2019


Christopher Bright – NSI Visiting Fellow; Diplomatic Historian

It might be tempting to suggest today’s announcement about the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty is simply another expression of an unorthodox and inchoate presidential worldview.  But, the declaration should more appropriately be seen as the latest development in a debate which has preoccupied American leaders and the public for decades.

Since 1945, questions have surrounded the role that nuclear weapons should play in U.S. national security policy, the utility of attempting to actively defend the country from these arms, and the extent to which related international treaties could enhance U.S. security.  All these issues are rooted in divergent subjective assessments of the geopolitical motives and trustworthiness of the United States and its rivals, the reasons for deciding to deploy nuclear arms or contemplating their use, as well as the technological feasibility of various weapon types and possible protection from them.

The ‘Worldwide Threat Assessment’ presented to the Senate this week by U.S. intelligence leaders noted that Russia has fielded a nuclear missile which violates the INF, and it did so because the weapon offers such a significant ‘military advantage’ that a violation was worthwhile.  Other sections of the report describe nuclear arms activities underway in North Korean and China.  The intelligence report was widely accepted.  (The document was newsworthy, not because of its underlying conclusions, but because of the president’s apparent disagreement with some findings.)  This sobering assessment should compel a reinvigorated consideration of the nuclear threat to the United States.

The Trump Administration’s announcement will certainly spark considerable public discussion, Congressional debate, and academic analysis.  But, rather than generate new insights or form the basis for a rekindled bipartisan consensus, forthcoming conversations about the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty will likely only reflect existing ideological cleavages.  Unfortunately, these divisions will also probably be exacerbated by the topic’s association with the current presidential administration.

Loren Dealy Mahler– NSI Visiting Fellow; Founder, Dealy Mahler Strategies, LLC and former Director, Legislative Affairs, National Security Council 

Everyone agrees Russia has been in violation of the INF treaty for years, but the appropriate response isn’t to blame the treaty for failing. The appropriate response is to raise the price of cheating to force compliance. Walking away from the table isn’t a habit that makes us safer.

We should be working with our NATO allies to punish the violations and get the treaty back on track, instead of so freely abandoning yet another international obligation.

Matthew R. A. Heiman– NSI Senior Fellow and Associate Director for Global Security; Chairman of the Cyber & Privacy Working Group, Regulatory Transparency Project

“Both the Obama and Trump administrations have recognized that the Russian 9M729 missile systems violate the INF Treaty, and recent reports indicate that Russia has increased its deployment of these systems.  Yesterday’s decision by President Trump to begin U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty is a long overdue acknowledgement that the INF Treaty is no longer effective.  Continued U.S. adherence to the INF Treaty in the hopes of shaming Russia into compliance is a fool’s errand as Russia’s expanded deployment of these missiles demonstrates its defiance of the treaty terms.  Moreover, these 9M729 systems, which pose a direct threat to our allies in Europe and the Middle East, are a stark reminder of  Russia’s hostile intent.  The U.S. must now consider this strategic development in terms of both its own weapons systems and whether there is any merit to further arms reduction efforts with Russia.  Presently, the Kremlin is not a trustworthy treaty partner.”

Jamil N. Jaffer – NSI Founder; former Chief Counsel and Senior Advisor for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former Associate Counsel to President George W. Bush

“It is unfortunate that the United States had to pull out of the INF Treaty, but Russia left us with no choice after its repeated blatant violations of the treaty; there still remains hope for maintaining this important nonproliferation regime, however if Russia returns to compliance in the next six months, the U.S. is still prepared to do the same, which is the right call.



Dr. Rizwan Ladha – NSI Visiting Fellow; Former Research Associate, MIT Security Studies Program and Harvard Kennedy School’s Project on Managing the Atom

There were certainly a number of challenges with the INF Treaty – it was outdated, obsolete, and didn’t include China. Russia has been in breach of its treaty obligations for years. And many of the verification mechanisms have expired. These and other criticisms of the agreement are all legitimate.

However, that doesn’t mean the Trump administration should have unilaterally withdrawn from INF – and it did so without any interagency decision making process, without notifying Russia, and without even notifying our European allies. This is like a kid kicking your soccer ball into the bushes and you stomping your feet and going home sulking, instead of teaching the kid a lesson. We just let Russia off the hook, and now the future of current and future arms control and non-proliferation efforts between the United States and Russia is in jeopardy.
There are three big challenges I see going forward. First: On China, it’s still an open question whether withdrawing from a flawed agreement will set a positive or negative precedent in China’s eyes when it comes to U.S. seriousness on arms control, but my sense is that it will be hard to negotiate from a position of strength when we are not showing strong leadership ourselves. An alternate path, whereby demonstrating our commitment to treaty obligations makes clear to the Chinese that the U.S. does not take an a la carte approach to arms control, would certainly have been slower and less dramatic, but would have yielded an eventual arms control agreement with China that would have been strong, verifiable, and enforceable.
Second: On Europe, it will now be incumbent on the United States to reassure its allies – not in rhetoric, but through action – that it will not allow NATO’s security to be jeopardized, now that Russia has free legal and political space to develop and deploy intermediate-range missiles that directly threaten the European continent and U.S. bases there. The official NATO statement at the end of last year, reaffirming that the United States and NATO stand together against Russian aggression, is an important and positive rhetorical step, but the hard work begins now for the Trump administration. A failure to maintain NATO’s bonds carries a significant risk of pushing Europe to further nuclearize, which will badly damage decades of non-proliferation efforts and destabilize the world order, making us all unsafe.
Third: On the future of arms control, the U.S. withdrawal from the INF does not bode well for reducing risk between the two largest nuclear-weapons states. At the moment, the future of bilateral arms control looks extremely dim, and there is a real risk that New START will be next on the chopping block. Beyond that, it’s important to keep in mind that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, as the cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime, is buoyed by mutual U.S. and Russian commitment to its principles, including to Article VI of the treaty, which obligates nuclear-weapons states to negotiate towards disarmament. With this latest development, the U.S. has put the entire global non-proliferation order at risk.
In sum, while the reasons for wanting to terminate the INF may have seemed prudent in the short term, the Trump administration’s decision to follow through on this threat will, in the long term, negatively impact U.S. national security and will make the world less, not more, safe.

Lester Munson – NSI Senior Fellow; former Staff Director, Senate Foreign Relations Committee

“President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the INF Treaty is a sensible step that immediately improves American national security.  Russia’s extensive violations of the treaty and evolving U.S. security requirements more than justify the president’s actions. The administration appears to have done a good job of consulting both Congress and our NATO allies on this matter.  This significant step, which is surely not welcomed in Moscow, should throw cold water on any notion that the current administration is somehow in thrall to Vladimir Putin.


Bryan Smith – NSI Senior Fellow; former Advisor to the U.S. Delegation to the INF Treaty

“The U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty is a necessary, but far from sufficient, response to Russia’s flagrant and material violation of the treaty.  What remains is for the U.S. to assemble a suite of capabilities that together, will deprive Russia of the advantage sought by its violation.

The Trump Administration has moved to answer the 60-year old, million-dollar question posed by Fred Ikle in his landmark 1961 Foreign Affairs article: ‘After detection, what?’  At the dawn of the modern era of nuclear arms control, Dr. Ikle wrote: ‘Yet detecting violations is not enough.  What counts are the political and military consequence of a violation once it has been detected, since these alone will determine whether or not the violator stands to gain in the end.’

The U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty is a necessary, but far from sufficient, response to Russia’s flagrant and material violation of the treaty.  (And having carefully examined the intelligence evidence when in government, I am confidence that this serious step is completely justified.)  What remains to be done is to assemble a suite of counterforce and defensive capabilities that together, will deprive Russia of the advantage it seeks from its illegal deployment of intermediate range ground-based cruise missiles.  Many ideas have been offered, to include nuclear sea-launched Tomahawks, stealthy stand-off long range air-launched cruise missiles from dual-capable F-35s, and various forms of advanced cruise missile defenses for Europe.

Whatever form this U.S. response takes, it must impose costs to Putin so great that they negate his illegal gains.  In addition, U.S. diplomacy must succeed in convincing our European allies of the necessity of this response.  Achieving both these ends will be very difficult, but not nearly as difficult as the dual-track NATO diplomacy that succeeded in placing U.S. intermediate nuclear forces in Europe, then convincing the Soviet Union to sign the INF treaty that banned such weapons.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this analysis are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Security Institute or any agency of the U.S. government. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of the National Security Institute or any U.S. government entity.