Arms Control
Source: AFP

Waqas Iqbal

The advent of nuclear weapons has not only transformed the dynamics of world politics but also added new concepts in the fields of International Relations and International Law. For instance, nuclear proliferation emerged as an exceptional form of arms race. Likewise, it complemented international treaties of arms control in a new fashion. But our world is anarchic. Sovereign states always pursue their national interests. The pursuance of national interests in an anarchic system is an anathema to the effective implementation of   international law, and most of the time super powers discredit international law by withdrawing from an international treaty in the name of national interest. Recently, President Donald Trump announced his intention of withdrawal from the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) Treaty, a bilateral arms control treaty signed by the then US President Ronald Regan and the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1987, allegedly  because of repeated violations of INF treaty by the Russians. On the contrary, Russia always denied such allegations. Earlier, President Obama also wrote a letter to the Russian President Vladimir V Putin in connection with the testing of prohibited ground-launched cruise missile as clear violation of a landmark arms control agreement i.e. INF treaty.

On 20th October 2018, Trump said, “We’ll have to develop those weapons,” while adding  “We’re going to terminate the agreement and we’re going to pull out.” Unless Russia comes to us and China comes to us and they all come to us and they say, ‘Let’s all of us get smart and let’s none of us develop those weapons… America would pull out and start building new nuclear arms.”  However, Russian reaction was more or less the  same as it was at the time of US withdrawal from ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missiles) treaty. During the  Bush administration, they termed the move a mistake. Mr. Putin said, “The aggressors should know: revenge is inevitable and they will be destroyed.” Furthermore, the Russian Foreign Minister, Mr. Lavrov added, “And we, as victims of aggression, will go straight to heaven as martyrs while they will just croak”. These statements of the top leadership from both rival powers clearly show that a cold war of words has begun. Soon after this announcement, the US National Security Adviser, John R. Bolton visited Moscow to explain to the Russian officials President Trump’s decision to pull out of the INF treaty. Moreover, after Paris Agreement on Climate Change, JCPOA( Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) , INF is the third international agreement from which President Trump announced US withdrawal.

Here arise few questions: What is the rationale behind US withdrawal from the INF Treaty? Will the latest decision really be instrumental in triggering a nuclear arms race between the US, Russia and China? There is a need to address these questions in light of the present  geopolitical landscape.

Arms Control
Source: AFP

The Rationale of US withdrawal from the INF treaty

Apparently, it seems that the alleged Russian violations of the INF treaty are behind US withdrawal from this arms control treaty. However, in recent years, both United States and Russia suspected each other of  violations of this treaty. In fact, China is the main driver behind this crucial decision which can be implemented in the near future.

In recent years, China’s military capabilities have become a major concern for both US and Russia. China’s growing inventory of conventional and nuclear-capable missiles is based on medium range systems which are prohibited by the INF Treaty, but China is not a party to the treaty while US is. Therefore, China has deployed intermediate-range missiles in significant numbers in the Asia Pacific region. A renowned defense analyst, Harry Harris, the US Ambassador to South Korea and former head of the US Pacific Command, opined that intermediate-range missile systems make up 95 percent of the Peoples Liberation Army’s missile force. In fact, the articles I, IV and V of the INF Treaty clearly bind state parties to have intermediate-range nuclear forces; neither can they  produce nor  deploy ground launched ballistic missile (GLBM) and ground launched cruise missile (GLCM).

Article I 

In accordance with the provisions of this Treaty which includes the Memorandum of Understanding and Protocols which form an integral part thereof, each Party shall eliminate its intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles, not have such systems thereafter, and carry out the other obligations set forth in this Treaty.

Article IV

  1. Each Party shall eliminate all its intermediate-range missiles and launchers of such missiles, and all support structures and support equipment of the categories listed in the Memorandum of Understanding associated with such missiles and launchers, so that no later than three years after entry into force of this Treaty and thereafter no such missiles, launchers, support structures or support equipment shall be possessed by either Party.

Article V

  1. Each Party shall eliminate all its shorter-range missiles and launchers of such missiles, and all support equipment of the categories listed in the Memorandum of Understanding associated with such missiles and launchers, so that no later than 18 months after entry into force of this Treaty and thereafter no such missiles, launchers or support equipment shall be possessed by either Party.

Thus, being a party to the treaty, US remains unable to deploy required missile systems in the region to counter the growing Chinese military capabilities.

Triggering an Arms Race

The expected elimination of this landmark arms control treaty will initiate an arms race among the current superpowers, the US, Russia and China. But many experts maintain that the world is already engaged in such a state owing to Russia’s ongoing preparation to deploy hypersonic missiles, which are not covered by existing arms control agreements, while China is deploying intermediate range missiles and the US is responding by modifying cruise missiles  in Asia. However, some experts still believe that United States is employing pressure tactics in order to acquire Russian compliance for the treaty during the recent visit of Mr. Bolton to Moscow. Rossiskaya Gazeta, the government newspaper, published an article under the title, ‘Trump Turns to Blackmail’, suggesting that Trump is applying the same hardball tactics. It is difficult to estimate the exact impact of removal of the treaty but one thing is obvious: it can compromise  European security, that is why Europe did not welcome this move. Maja Kocijancic, the European Union’s spokeswoman for foreign affairs and security policy, responded, “The United States and the Russian Federation need to remain engaged in constructive dialogue to preserve the I.N.F. Treaty,” because, “the world does not need a new arms race”. Similarly, Germany reacted more explicitly as its foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said in a statement, “The treaty has been an important pillar of our European security architecture”.

It has to be seen whether Trump administration will go for the follow up of termination of the INF treaty. They are not going to face any legal hurdles as it is a bilateral treaty. Hence, it is proved that Republicans believes in hard power as the only way available for US power projection and protection of its national interests. Like Former President George .W. Bush, Mr. Trump also has a team of hard-liners, particularly Mr. Bolton has always expressed his displeasure for the arms control agreements. For international security and political analysts, Trump’s intention of withdrawal from the INF treaty was not a surprise because last year on 18th  Dec. 2017, President Trump unveiled his National Security Strategy (NSS) where he categorically mentioned China and Russia as greatest threat to the US interests and called them ‘Revisionist Powers’. One can assume that if INF Treaty ends it will not only trigger the first arms race of the 21st century, but United States will have to face opposition from Europe, NATO, Russia and China. Excessive unilateralism will badly affect credibility of the US as a trusted global leader. Furthermore, if INF Treaty falls, the next victim of unilateralism would be the New START 2010 (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). This hardline unilateralism was first initiated by the Bush administration, disregarding the UNO and international law, and today it is rigorously pursued by President Trump. However, the current time and context of world politics is different, where Europe is not ready to stand with the US in all its endeavors, JCPOA being a case in point. The US must learn that the present world order is neither unipolar nor multipolar. It is a complex amalgam of both.

Waqas Iqbal is a Research Associate at the Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research, University of Lahore.