A Cold War missile treaty that's doing us harm
The U.S.-Soviet INF pact doesn't address the Iranian threat

National Archives and Records Administration

President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room of the White House, Dec. 8, 1987.

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  • The #US & #Soviet INF treaty has outlived its usefulness - it needs to be changed or kicked to the curb

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  • Devout arms controllers oppose the expansion of the INF treaty, not the #administration @AMBJohnBolton

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  • Moscow and #Washington are likely to remain bound by a treaty the rest of the world doesn't follow #missiles

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'Treaties, you see, are like girls and roses: They last while they last." So said Charles de Gaulle a half-century ago, but he could have been describing the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement signed by the United States and the Soviet Union. The INF Treaty has far outlived its usefulness in its current form—so it should either be changed or thrown out.

The Cold War strategic reality that existed in 1988 has passed into history. And yet the U.S. (and Russia) remain constrained by the INF Treaty's terms, even while today's strategic threats—China, Iran and North Korea—come from states outside the treaty. Despite the Kremlin's growing propensity for international troublemaking, both Moscow and Washington have a common interest in not having their hands tied by a treaty that binds them alone.

The INF Treaty (which Russia accepted as binding upon the Soviet Union's collapse) prohibits the possession of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. It created an extensive verification regime, and while there were several serious problems with Soviet compliance, they were addressed and ultimately resolved satisfactorily. All Soviet and U.S. INF-range missiles—over 2,500—were verifiably eliminated by the 1991 deadline.

Since 1991, however, nations not covered by the treaty have been steadily increasing their missile capabilities, especially in the intermediate ranges.

INF was thus one of the few arms-control agreements to be effectively implemented, verified and enforced. It actually succeeded in addressing a significant threat to U.S. interests, and it vindicated President Reagan's determination, over considerable opposition, to counter Soviet nuclear capabilities by deploying intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles in Europe in the first place. If only other U.S. arms-control efforts had been coupled so directly with assertive weapons-deployment strategies to achieve U.S. and allied strategic objectives.

Since 1991, however, nations not covered by the treaty have been steadily increasing their missile capabilities, especially in the intermediate ranges. China, for example, has been rapidly increasing its cruise and ballistic arsenals. These arsenals imperil not only Taiwan but U.S. bases and naval forces in the Western Pacific, especially as China becomes increasingly belligerent and politically assertive, as in the South China Sea.

Iran, North Korea and other rogue states seeking nuclear weapons are also developing ballistic-missile delivery capabilities. Their programs will inevitably progress to the missile ranges that the INF Treaty was designed to eliminate. Thus, while the U.S. home front may not be immediately vulnerable, our deployed forces, friends and allies will.

To reduce the threat from INF-range missiles, we must either expand the INF Treaty's membership or abrogate it entirely so that we can rebuild our own deterrent capabilities. We need ballistic-missile defenses, but President Obama is rapidly scaling down U.S. missile-defense programs—so our need for an INF-range second-strike capability is acute. (Russia, which borders both China and North Korea and is proximate to Iran, feels this problem even more acutely than we do.)

Expanding the treaty's membership might seem like the Obama administration's preference, given its pursuit of a nuclear weapons-free world. But most devout arms controllers have long opposed multilateralizing the INF Treaty, fearing that such a massive effort would interfere with their more-favored approaches, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime. Of course, that regime, like arms control generally, only inhibits those countries already prepared to be inhibited.

The more persuasive argument against globalizing the INF Treaty is precisely that China, Iran and North Korea are least likely to join. While ponderous negotiations proceeded at a glacial pace, Moscow and Washington would remain bound by the treaty's prohibitions while missile development elsewhere would continue full speed ahead.

If the INF Treaty isn't expanded, we can expect Moscow to suspend its compliance with it, as it did with the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty originally signed in 1990. In that case, the U.S. shouldn't ignore Russia's violations but should suspend its own compliance with INF or, better still, withdraw entirely.

President Obama's goal of a nuclear-free world is doomed for many reasons, but its inherent dangers are only made more manifest by the continuing spread of INF-range missiles. The U.S. motto on the INF should be: Expand it or expunge it. Given the odds against expansion, we should start thinking now about how to ramp up our INF-range missile capabilities. Assuming, of course, we still have a defense budget.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI. Ms. DeSutter was assistant secretary for verification, compliance and implementation from 2002-09.

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John R.
  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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