After first raising the prospect of leaving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty last October, President Trump announced in early February that the US will withdraw from the landmark Cold War arms control treaty if Russia does not stop violating it – a decision that will take effect in six months time. Trump’s announcement elicited an immediate Russian response to act in kind – if the US was withdrawing, so would Russia.
The INF treaty was designed in 1987 to eliminate an entire category of land-based ballistic and cruise missiles (and their launchers) with a range of 500 to 5500 km, but the reality some 30 years later is that neither the Russians nor the Americans view adherence to the treaty as serving their national security interest. For the Trump administration, this is due to Russian violations going back at least five years – to the Obama administration – and an inability to persuade Putin to discontinue testing and deployment of the intermediate range missile that violates the treaty. For its part, Russia also accuses the US of violating the treaty by deploying an anti ballistic system (Aegis Ashore) in Romania and Poland, which they claim could be armed with cruise missiles, which are banned.
But perhaps the US decision has at least as much to do with the fact that China’s intermediate range missiles are not covered by any arms control agreement, and these missiles pose a challenge to the US in the South and East China Sea arena. Russia is also concerned by unchecked Chinese missile proliferation, as well as by what it perceives as a US advantage in both the nuclear and conventional realms in Europe.
The implication of this decision could be an unchecked US-Russian arms race, with each power seeking to increase its nuclear capabilities – both offensive and defensive – in their effort to preserve what is known as ‘first strike stability.’ However, entering an unchecked arms race could end up upsetting the mutual vulnerability that has been the basis of strategic stability between the US and Russia for decades. Although there is no formal linkage, there is also a question of whether the withdrawal from the INF treaty is a harbinger of the fate of additional arms control agreements between the two powers. Specifically, some experts believe that ending the INF treaty will lead to the termination of New START as well, a major bilateral arms control treaty that comes up for extension in 2021.
Efforts to discuss strategic stability in the Middle East must be both regionally inclusive and comprehensive
If both the INF treaty and New START suffer the same fate, the arms control regime that took the superpowers decades to establish might crumble. Moreover, what will happen at the normative level when the US and Russia, rather than leading the way in the direction of reduced nuclear arsenals, begin significantly enhancing their arsenals? This will no doubt create a legitimacy problem for the key nonproliferation treaty, the NPT, as well. With the two nuclear powers modernizing and enhancing their nuclear arsenals, they will be viewed as further abdicating their Article VI commitment to disarmament.
But as much as these issues are a matter of concern, the situation regarding China’s missile arsenal also poses a serious challenge to global strategic stability. China possesses a nuclear arsenal that is expanding, but it remains outside of any binding commitment regarding intermediate range ballistic and cruise missiles. Given the new players in the missile realm – which include also North Korea, Iran, India and Pakistan – and new technologies and missile defenses, there is a pressing need to create new frameworks for maintaining strategic stability outside the bilateral arena. Significant changes that have occurred since the end of the Cold War have led to a growing recognition among experts that the concept of strategic stability – which was previously confined to the nuclear realm – must now include these new technologies, with cyber capabilities topping the list. Moreover, there is a need to multilateralize the discussion of strategic stability, with new regional and global dimensions.
The problem is that there is a severe lack of political will on all sides to consider such new frameworks. China’s current response to the US and Russian announcements has been to say that the INF treaty should remain in place, but was quick to clarify that it has no interest in any new agreement that would cover its own capabilities. It is not clear that there is anything that could be offered to China to entice or cajole it to engage, but the fact that the US and Russia are on the same side in this regard could be a starting point for discussions between the two powers. Nevertheless, with the current state of their bilateral relations the odds of this happening are not high.
While the INF decisions do not impinge directly on the Middle East, the implications for the arms control regime, including the NPT, raise the question of what all of this means for Israel and for strategic stability in the Middle East. Israel certainly does not have an interest in a nuclear and ballistic missile arms race in the Middle East. Nor does it have an interest in a weakened NPT, despite the fact that Israel is not a member. In this respect, any weakening of the international arms control and nonproliferation regime is not good news.
But in a broader sense, efforts to discuss strategic stability in the Middle East must be both regionally inclusive and comprehensive, taking into account the relevant actors, and in addition to a full range of conventional and nonconventional military capabilities, regional talks must place political and economic factors that impinge on strategic stability squarely on the table.
Past efforts at discussing arms control in the Middle East have had only limited success due in the main to the clash between Egyptian demands to focus on WMD, and the Israeli desire to relate to the broader regional context. This was the Middle Eastern expression of what has been a long-term debate in arms control circles – whether it is enough to deal with weapons systems, or whether stability necessitates attention also to the relations and relationships among the relevant actors. The fate of the INF underscores that more is at stake than capabilities per se.
In sum, the arms control architecture that was conceived by the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War seems to be nearing its end. This set of agreements had served the national security interests of the two powers (notwithstanding their ideological differences), and led to a significant reduction in their nuclear arsenals. Moreover, it helped them maintain strategic stability for decades. But given the significant geostrategic and technological changes that have occurred in the new millennium, adjustments at the global level will have to be made.
In the same vein, it would be more than advisable, given the highly unstable situation in the Middle East, to initiate regional dialogue on strategic stability in this region as well, although under the current circumstances achieving this objective will also have to overcome formidable political obstacles.