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Should the United States withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty? Colin Gray and Matthew Costlow argue that the time has come for Washington to walk away from the Treaty because it no longer serves to promote American national security.[1] Their arguments about the growing weakness of the current INF regime are sound and command respect. 

In their analysis, however, they give insufficient attention to the tangible security benefits that the current INF regime confers on the United States, including its stabilizing effect on U.S.-Russian relations, as well as its important role in promoting enduring American advantages in naval and aerial strike capabilities against the missile challenges of Eurasian land powers like Russia.  In minimizing the role that the INF Treaty plays in promoting American military advantages, they fail to provide a roadmap for what the United States ought to do after withdrawing from the Treaty.  The logic behind the INF Treaty is sound, even if the current Treaty needs revision.  To paraphrase Voltaire, if an INF Treaty didn’t exist, the United States would have to invent one.  The time may be approaching to abandon the existing INF framework, but American leaders would do well to recognize both the strengths and weaknesses of that framework and plan their departure to maximize the chances of returning to a more secure, robust INF Treaty in the near future.

Gray and Costlow lay out a succinct and convincing case for the failings of the current INF Treaty.  First, Russia is intentionally cheating on the Treaty, developing, testing, and deploying intermediate-range nuclear weapons that are prohibited.  Second, Russian cheating derives not from misunderstanding or miscommunication, but rather from the Russian leadership’s determination that intermediate-range missiles are vital to Russian national security, even if this requires violating the INF Treaty.  Third, Russian cheating has a direct impact on American national security, through several mechanisms: the capabilities that Russia develops are threatening to the United States and its allies; the political debate surrounding Russian non-compliance undermines American alliance relationships; and by cheating, Russia calls into question international norms concerning arms control compliance more generally.  Fourth, the costs to the United States of withdrawing from the Treaty will be manageable, especially since the arms race that the Treaty was meant to curtail is already occurring across Eurasia.  The authors conclude by arguing that Washington ought to announce its withdrawal from the Treaty, based on Russian noncompliance and American supreme national interests.  Although they hold out some hope that announcing withdrawal might convince the Russians to end their noncompliance, Gray and Costlow insist that the United States should be prepared for the political-military realities of the 21st century in the absence of an INF Treaty.

Gray and Costlow’s case for withdrawal is powerful, but they significantly underrate the Treaty’s contribution to the real political-military security of the United States.  As I have recently written, historians and analysts have long misunderstood American Cold War arms control motives.[2] The arms control process is often remembered as an act of cooperation designed to improve the security of both superpowers through mutually beneficial arms limitation.  For example, Gray and Costlow describe the INF Treaty as adding “a sense of stability and some transparency to the U.S.-Russian relationship;” they later add that arms control may at times produce “some very modest benefit to international security.”  This narrative of mutual cooperation is correct to a point, but it is also incomplete.  Even as American leaders cooperated with the Soviet Union on areas of mutual concern, they also sought to develop, ratify, and exploit asymmetries in organizational and technological capabilities to enhance America’s relative power over its Soviet adversary.  Arms control negotiations played a key role in enhancing America’s relative power.  Arms control was part of a competitive strategy to offset Soviet advantages in weaponry and retain American advantages in the arms race.

The examples of competitive arms control are numerous. The INF Treaty, for example, focused on one particular factor: the United States’ advantages as an offshore maritime power versus the Soviet Union’s advantages as a continental Eurasian power.  By the 1970s, the Soviet Union had caught up with and overtaken the United States in the size of its strategic nuclear arsenal.  Looking to retain a competitive military advantage over the Soviets, American leaders increasingly turned to a durable nexus of political, economic, organizational, cultural, and technical factors, all of which contributed to substantial American advantages over the Soviet Union in the naval and aerial domains.[3] American bases and alliances provided the platforms from which to project substantial military power over intercontinental distances.  American ships and aircrews operated more regularly overseas, and at much higher levels of readiness, generating human and organizational capital that was very difficult to replicate.  American superiority in precision manufacturing, electronics, and digital computing all translated into tangible advantages in complex military missions like the suppression of enemy air defenses, antisubmarine warfare, and ultimately precision-attack reconnaissance-strike complexes.  Because these capabilities emerged from a hybrid structure of American organizations, culture, and technology, they were advantages that the Soviet Union would struggle to match in direct competition.

Meanwhile, American strategic planners wanted to offset the military advantages that the Soviet Union derived from its authoritarian political system, command economy, geographical position, culture, and technology.  While the Soviets could not match the United States in intercontinental power projection, their ability to strike into their immediate Eurasian periphery dwarfed that of the United States, posing a serious threat to American allies.  Furthermore, the Soviet Union’s vast geography and massive command economy gave it an unparalleled capacity for deploying large numbers of land-mobile missiles of all ranges.[4]

Faced with these competing advantages, American leaders adopted an “offset” strategy designed to counterbalance Soviet land power through the United States’ military-technological advantages.[5] An important but rarely-discussed component of this strategy was the use of arms control negotiations to try to curtail Soviet advantages while allowing continued competition in areas that played to American strengths.  Indeed, as Gray and Costlow note, while the INF Treaty is remembered as a win-win solution in the United States, many Russian commentators view it as an unequal arrangement designed to hem in Russian power – and not without some justification!  It is no coincidence that the INF Treaty limits only land-based intermediate-range weapons while allowing the United States to retain its sea- and air-based advantages.[6] By limiting only land-based missiles, the INF Treaty enhanced the comparative advantage of American sea and air power, by limiting the Soviet Union’s advantages in simpler land-based missiles.  That this advantage has been enduring is demonstrated by Gray and Costlow’s observation that even absent an INF Treaty, the United States’ natural inclination would be to continue enhancing its superior aerial and naval forces, without the costs and political complexities of deploying a new generation of ground-based weapons.

In fact, the INF Treaty stands as a key example of how arms control negotiations, properly understood, can shape the international security environment in decisive ways.  Gray and Costlow suggest that arms control’s use is primarily in ratifying the existing balance of power.  But the competition between great powers is multifaceted and often entails opponents that possess asymmetrical military capabilities jockeying for relative advantage.[7] In the rivalry between asymmetrical adversaries, arms control negotiations can play an important role in shaping the competition by exploiting different factors – technological, political, economic, or organizational.  Rather than accept the unlimited expansion of Soviet land power, American and allied leaders of the 1970s and 1980s adopted a competitive strategy designed to place specific limits on that power.  In the Dual-Track Decision, the United States opted to challenge Soviet land power on a cost-efficient basis, setting the stage for the INF negotiations.[8] As Gray and Costlow note, American leaders across multiple administrations then stuck to this vision of eliminating Soviet intermediate-range weapons through arms control, while retaining American advantages in the aerial and naval domains.  By cleverly targeting their adversary’s insecurities, leveraging the United States’ competitive advantages, and playing hard-ball in arms control negotiations, the United States effectively shaped the strategic competition of the 1980s in ways beneficial to American national security.  Insofar as it limits Eurasian challengers from developing the intermediate-range missiles necessary to cheaply challenge American power projection, the INF Treaty remains a valuable contribution to American national security.

Once we understand the INF Treaty’s role in promoting American competitive military advantage, two corollaries to Gray and Costlow’s analysis become apparent.  First, the INF Treaty regime is in even worse shape than Gray and Costlow suggest.  While Russia’s cheating provides the most immediate cause for withdrawing, in fact, the greatest challenge to the INF Treaty is the ever-growing missile arsenal of China, which poses the clearest contemporary threat to American power projection into the Eurasian littoral.[9] Indeed, the ability of China to leverage its growing arsenal of accurate medium- and intermediate-range missiles to undermine American security guarantees only further demonstrates the wisdom (from the American perspective) of an INF Treaty limiting these very types of weapons.  China is joined in this effort by several Eurasian militaries, including (but not limited to) India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea.[10] Given the reality of this proliferation, Russian criticism of the INF Treaty’s basic obsolescence may be correct.  As Gray and Costlow suggest, the United States might be doing the world a favor by making it plain that the current INF Treaty no longer functions in limiting these dangerous weapons.

The second corollary, however, is that some form of INF Treaty is decidedly in the interests of the United States.  The United States retains its enduring advantages in complex aerial and naval technologies and its interest in limiting competitors’ access to cheaper land-based alternatives.[11] The question we must ask ourselves is not whether the INF Treaty has failed, but rather how to build a better INF Treaty.  As a result, American leaders should take immediate steps to replace the current INF regime with a better one, based not just on Russian compliance, but also on expanding the INF Treaty’s scope to include other non-parties.  Because the existing INF Treaty was so successful in promoting American power, the suggestion that American leaders should reform rather than jettison the Treaty is entirely consistent with Gray and Costlow’s recommendation that America approach the 21st century with a “strategy grounded in realism.”

Gray and Costlow are likely still correct that moving in the direction of a new INF regime will involve some dramatic act distancing ourselves from the old one.  Once we recognize, however, that the purpose of leaving the INF Treaty would be to create a new framework for INF limitation, we might question the wisdom of abrogating the Treaty entirely, rather than “suspending” American participation in the Treaty while leaving the basic framework intact.[12] Whether the United States abrogates, suspends, or sustains the current INF Treaty, the terms of debate must remain fixed on the larger question of what comes next: namely, how to build a better INF Treaty than the one we currently have.


John D. Maurer is the Henry A. Kissinger Postdoctoral Fellow at International Security Studies and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University.  His work draws on the Kissinger Papers at Yale to examine how academic ideas on the nature and purpose of arms control shaped U.S. arms control policy.  He has a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.

[1] Colin Gray and Matthew Costlow, “Time to Withdraw from the INF Treaty,” 29 August 2018, https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2018/08/29/time_to_withdraw_from_the_inf_treaty_113753.html.

[2] John Maurer, “The Forgotten Side of Arms Control: Enhancing U.S. Competitive Advantage, Offsetting Enemy Strengths,” War on the Rocks, 27 June 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/06/the-forgotten-side-of-arms-control-enhancing-u-s-competitive-advantage-offsetting-enemy-strengths/.

[3] Octavian Manea and Andrew May, “The Art of Tailoring Competitive Strategies,” Small Wars Journal, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-art-of-tailoring-competitive-strategies.

[4] Andrew Marshall, “Long-Term Competition with the Soviets: A Framework for Strategic Analysis,” The RAND Corporation, 1972, https://www.rand.org/pubs/reports/R862.html.

[5] Edward Keefer, Harold Brown: Offsetting the Soviet Military Challenge, 1977—1981 (Washington, DC: Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2017), https://history.defense.gov/Portals/70/Documents/secretaryofdefense/OSDSeries_Vol9.pdf?ver=2017-06-13-152737-467.

[6] “Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty),” US Department of State, https://www.state.gov/t/avc/trty/102360.htm.

[7] Stephen Rosen, “Competitive Strategies: Theoretical Foundations, Limits, and Extensions,” in Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century: Theory, History, and Practice, Thomas Mahnken, ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 12-27.

[8] William Burr, ed., “Thirtieth Anniversary of NATO’s Dual-Track Decision: The Road to the Euromissiles Crisis and the End of the Cold War,” The National Security Archive, 10 December 2009, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb301/index.htm.

[9] Thomas Shugart, “First Strike: China’s Missile Threat to U.S. Bases in Asia,” Center for New American Security, 28 June 2017, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/first-strike-chinas-missile-threat-to-u-s-bases-to-asia.

[10] “Missile Proliferation,” The Arms Control Association, https://www.armscontrol.org/subject/19/date.

[11] Lyle Goldstein, “China’s Naval Expansion Is No Threat,” The National Interest, 6 June 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/chinas-naval-expansion-no-threat-26150; “An Interactive Look at the U.S.-China Military Scorecard,” RAND,  https://www.rand.org/paf/projects/us-china-scorecard.html.

[12] Amy Woolf, “Russian Compliance with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 25 April 2018, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R43832.pdf#page=37.

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