How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On February 1, the Trump administration made official what had been in the offing for some time: the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Signed in 1987, the treaty banned the United States and Russia from developing or deploying any ground-launched missiles that could travel between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, or about 300 to 3,400 miles. Washington claims—correctly—that Russia is building and testing systems prohibited by the treaty, including a new cruise missile that the United States claims can travel at prohibited ranges. The Russians have responded by announcing their own plans to withdraw and develop new weapons.
The INF Treaty was one of the few arms control agreements that became an institution in its own right. The first treaty to eliminate an entire class of nuclear delivery systems, it was the foundation for denuclearizing most of Europe. Today, Russia is violating the agreement, and the Trump administration is right to protest. But provocative as Russia’s cheating may be, the U.S. decision to walk away rather than make a serious effort to bring Moscow back into compliance will undermine the long-term security of both Europe and the United States.
The INF Treaty removed the most dangerous nuclear weapons from European soil: “intermediate range” weapons that are meant neither for the battlefield nor for long-distance strategic strikes but for nuclear attacks deep into NATO or Russian territory. The limited reach and short flight times of these weapons ideally suited them for a large but geographically confined theater, such as Cold War Europe. Dramatically outgunned and overmatched in terms of conventional firepower, NATO deliberately placed these nuclear missiles in the path of Soviet forces. If Moscow invaded Western Europe, its advancing troops would force NATO leaders to use or lose these weapons, potentially setting off a nuclear war. This risk, the thinking went, would deter the Soviets from trying to overrun Europe.
But placing these arms on the frontlines of a possible East-West war was immensely destabilizing, as it gave leaders only a few minutes to deliberate in the event of a crisis. NATO’s strategy did not keep the peace so much as it made both sides look for a way out of an unsustainable and unbearably tense situation. Soviet leaders were so on edge that a NATO military exercise in 1983 nearly convinced them that an attack was under way. In his memoirs, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev described U.S. intermediate-range weapons as “a pistol to our head”—a sentiment shared in Europe and the United States about similar Soviet missiles aimed their way. In 1987, Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan found an exit in the form of the INF Treaty, under which both sides physically destroyed their intermediate-range missiles, accompanied by regular mutual inspections.
Critics argue that whatever its merits in the past, the treaty has outlived its usefulness. They cite—rightly—Russia’s reckless cheating and argue that the United States cannot sit idly by as the Russians develop new nuclear systems. They also point to China’s huge arsenal of intermediate-range missiles as proof that the treaty is a needless straitjacket for the United States in East Asia. At the very least, we are told, the United States needs to rethink arms control commitments from the last century.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that it mistakes war-gaming for strategy. The case for abandoning the INF Treaty and developing intermediate-range missiles focuses almost entirely on operational thinking about complex battlefield scenarios. By contrast, little thought is given to a logically prior question: whether these weapons increase or decrease the chances that war might break out in the first place. Put simply, any discussion about intermediate-range missiles must begin by asking how they affect deterrence. The answer, in almost all cases, is that they corrode it.
Consider the situation in Europe. Today, the biggest threat to NATO is no longer a full-scale Russian invasion but that Russian President Vladimir Putin will make a grab for Baltic or Polish territory, perhaps as an attempt to distract his increasingly restive population. Putin might be tempted to show that NATO is a paper tiger by taking a small patch of allied territory, daring the United States to eject his forces while acclimating Europe and the world to yet another “frozen” conflict, as he has done in eastern Ukraine.
The INF treaty’s critics mistake war-gaming for strategy.
Western nuclear threats will mean little to Putin in such a circumstance. The Russians know that a conflict on the edge of central Europe is not the same as a Soviet march to the Rhine or the English Channel and that Washington will not risk a nuclear holocaust over a localized and relatively small conventional conflict.
Indeed, how could U.S. leaders even begin to make such a nuclear threat credible? Imagine, for the moment, that the United States redeployed intermediate-range nuclear missiles to Europe to deter Russia. Where would it place these weapons? Unlike in 1985, today NATO includes Poland and all of the Baltic states. For U.S. missiles to lie directly in the path of a possible Russian attack, they would have to be deployed right along the Russian border. To situate them there would be insanely provocative and would furnish Moscow with a convenient excuse to aim hundreds of similar weapons at the capital of every NATO member, as it did in the 1980s.
In truth, NATO has the conventional power to eventually dislodge a Russian incursion without nuclear weapons. Russian leaders know this and have sought to offset NATO’s superiority by threatening to go nuclear should they find themselves losing a conventional war, even if they are the aggressor. This is exactly the threat that NATO reluctantly relied upon over 30 years ago. Today, the burden of nuclear escalation rests entirely on Moscow. Why would the United States voluntarily relieve Russia of this problem by engaging in a new nuclear arms race?
Never mind Europe, critics contend: the real threat lies farther east. China—which is not a signatory to the INF Treaty—has deployed intermediate-range systems on its territory and may well use them in a future conflict. Freed from the shackles of treaty compliance, Washington can now respond by shoring up its regional presence with similar weapons systems.
Yet doing so inevitably raises the same strategic questions as in Europe. Assuming that Japan or South Korea agreed to station U.S. missiles on its territory—an unlikely proposition—this would instantly make either country a legitimate target for a preemptive Chinese nuclear attack in the event of a crisis. Would deterrence and strategic stability in Asia be enhanced as a result?
Arming the missiles in question with conventional rather than nuclear warheads won’t solve these problems. The United States could, of course, develop ballistic and cruise missiles that can strike quickly and destroy important targets without using nuclear force. In practice, however, even these conventional systems could quickly bring the United States close to the nuclear precipice, since opponents cannot tell ahead of time whether they are being targeted with conventional or nuclear weapons if the delivery systems can be armed with both. The same goes for launching platforms that are indistinguishable from systems also designed for strategic attack, such as submarines.
We know this from close calls in the past. As recently as 1995—a time of relative Russian-U.S. comity in the happier days right after the end of the Cold War—the launch of a single Norwegian weather satellite was enough for the Russian military to hand then President Boris Yeltsin the nuclear codes. Yet today’s advocates of a new arms race in both Europe and Asia are confident that if the United States launched a swarm of missiles in a future conflict with Russia or China, leaders in Moscow and Beijing would wait until impact to assess the damage and calmly fine-tune their response.
The underlying problem here is that advocates of an intermediate-range missile arms race gloss over the interests at stake and the risks involved—yet strategy is about choice within constraints, including the limitations imposed by risk. Too often, the starting point is to simply “assume a war” and then calculate which weapons systems will give U.S. forces an edge over their opponents. Such is the result when analysts spend too much time looking at charts and specifications in the sterile environment of think tanks and simulation rooms, as thinkers such as former U.S. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy and the military historian Sir Michael Howard warned us during the Cold War.
In the heat and fog of war, with the safety of the homeland at stake, real decision-makers will act like normal human beings: they will make assumptions, jump to conclusions, and commit errors. Above all, they will probably not wait to see if incoming warheads are appropriately configured for the next iteration of the game.
To account for the unpredictable behavior of humans in high-stakes situations, weapons should be designed and deployed with an underlying strategic logic rather than based only on their technical characteristics. The Trump administration, like the administration of Barack Obama before it, lacks the most important ingredient of such a strategy: an actual set of policies that defines U.S. interests and goals in Europe and Asia.
In the heat and fog of war, decision-makers make assumptions, jump to conclusions, and commit errors.
Under Obama, the United States mortgaged much of its foreign policy to the overriding goal of reaching a nuclear deal with Iran. The Trump administration’s approach, meanwhile, reflects the president’s general ignorance of, and hostility to, alliances and treaties. As it stands, the U.S. reaction to Russian cheating has amounted to an admission that Washington doesn’t like the INF Treaty any more than Moscow does and that it wishes everyone in Europe the best of luck as it heads off to start arms racing the Chinese. More by necessity than conviction, NATO has declared its support for the U.S. exit from the treaty, but the message to Europe is clear: “You’re on your own.”
What would a more comprehensive U.S. strategy look like? First and foremost, it should disentangle American interests in Asia and Europe. The United States is time limited in its decisions about Europe, where the equally important New START treaty is set to expire in early 2021. Responding to China’s rise, meanwhile, will take much more than reopening the door to any single weapons system: more investment in conventional forces and especially a recommitment to U.S. naval power in the Pacific.
Responding to China’s rise, will take much more than reopening the door to any single weapons system.
In Europe, the United States should engage Russia on several issues that both sides care about, such the New START treaty, sanctions, and Ukraine. The United States should go into these talks with clear plans for exacting a price for Russian intransigence. Linking such disparate issues might not have been advisable in an earlier time, when Washington and Moscow still had open lines of communication to discuss them separately. Today, however, relations are at such a low point that only a forceful and comprehensive engagement can head off a larger conflict down the line.
For such talks to be successful, the United States needs to treat NATO members like allies rather than clients or serfs and to work with them to reinforce the alliance’s eastern borders. A more powerful conventional defense bolstered by U.S. forces would serve as a deterrent, ensuring that Russia would lose any conventional engagement quickly and decisively, before its half-baked nuclear threats could even come into play.
Most important, U.S. leaders should ask themselves what, exactly, they are willing to fight for, and why. The United States needs a better plan than to keep leaning not only on the crutch of nuclear weapons but on weapons systems it got rid of more than 30 years ago.