On Dec. 8, 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, firmly shook hands after they signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. It was a scene symbolizing the end of the Cold War.
More than three decades after that, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intention to pull his country out of the INF treaty. Trump explained that he is doing so because Russia, which took over the treaty from the Soviet Union, is in violation of the bilateral accord, and that China is becoming a looming threat to the U.S.
The secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has also suggested that Russia is “in violation” of the treaty, so the description cannot be written off as a unilateral assertion by the Trump administration. But it is too dangerous to rush toward departure from the treaty.
U.S. presidential adviser on national security and a known hawk, John Bolton, is now visiting Russia to discuss this issue. We want Washington to refrain from withdrawing from the treaty. Russia should go beyond mere denials of a violation and prove its innocence in a sincere manner.
The INF treaty, which completely bans ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, has been a resounding success in the history of nuclear disarmament. Its collapse would usher in the redeployment of intermediate nuclear missiles in places such as Europe by the U.S. and Russia. Tensions in areas around Japan would certainly rise.
On top of that, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between Washington and Moscow will expire in 2021. This treaty caps for each country the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550, while limiting the number of deployed and non-deployed delivery systems such as intercontinental and submarine ballistic missiles and heavy bombers to no more than 800.
Abolishing these two treaties, which are among the few instruments preventing nuclear arms races, would kick-start military buildups observed during the Cold War, and a new nuclear state might emerge out of the struggle. Washington’s departure from the INF treaty will only undercut its efforts to denuclearize North Korea.
Rather than going down this path, nuclear disarmament should be pursued in the spirit of the INF treaty. The Trump administration emphasized Russian threats and referred to the development and deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons in its Nuclear Posture Review. But leading international negotiations to lower and mitigate the risks for the world is more beneficial than expanding a nuclear arsenal to counter threats.
This problem over the INF treaty comes from nuclear weapons states’ failure to reduce and eliminate their warheads as stipulated by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and recognize the United Nations’ Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. If they really respect the NPT, the United States and Russia should continue honoring the INF treaty, and start new talks on nuclear disarmament. Washington, Moscow and Beijing, the latter of whose nuclear forces are far more powerful than 30 years ago, should pursue serious negotiations to reduce their nuclear arms.