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Cold War Era ICBM © Zack Frank / Shutterstock

Leaving the INF Treaty Wasn’t the Problem — It’s How We Did It

While the United States was motivated to pull out of the agreement because of Russia’s noncompliance, it should also be noted that the INF Treaty had significant flaws.

On February 1, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that, due to the Russian development of an intermediate-range cruise missile system, the United States was immediately suspending its obligations to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty, planning a full withdrawal from the agreement within six months. This move has been widely opposed, most recently by the House Appropriations Committee. The committee released a budget report on May 20, stating its intent not to fund any research or development systems that would violate the restrictions of the INF Treaty.

However, this opposition may be misplaced, as the Trump administration’s choice to withdraw from the treaty was justified. What is concerning, however, is how they did it.

The INF Treaty, signed by the United States and Russia in 1987, eliminated both countries’ arsenals of short and intermediate-range missiles, highlighting its importance as key bilateral agreement between the biggest nuclear powers. Due to the treaty’s importance, many critics of the withdrawal contend that the United States is actively endangering global nuclear stability and arms control efforts. However, these critics are disregarding one fact: Russia has been cheating.

The United States has known that Russia was developing intermediate-range missiles prohibited by the INF Treaty since 2013. The Obama administration actively pursued diplomatic means to return Russia to compliance, including a 2014 public acknowledgment that Russia was in violation of the INF Treaty. These diplomatic efforts continued through 2018, to no avail.

While the United States was motivated to pull out of the agreement because of Russia’s noncompliance, it should also be noted that the INF Treaty had significant flaws. As the treaty was bilateral, it only addressed Russian and American intermediate-range land missiles, but had no authority over other nuclear powers. While China was happy with that arrangement, the rest of the world had every reason not to be.

Yet even in the context of this flaw and Russia’s noncompliance, critics still contend that a broken treaty is better than no treaty, which is simply not true. By allowing Russia to remain party to a treaty that it was blatantly disregarding, the United States was implicitly suggesting that signing the correct agreements is more important than following those agreements. Such a message jeopardizes international stability far more than the withdrawal from an individual treaty.

For instance, the United States and Russia are party to the New START treaty, which limits the number of deployed strategic warheads held by either country. Prior to the United States pulling out of the INF Treaty, it was plausible that Russia believed it could also violate the New START treaty without suffering repercussions. Unfortunately, the opportunity to communicate this narrative was not seized upon by the Trump administration.

As Brookings’ author Frank A. Rose recently noted, when the United States withdrew from the INF Treaty, its ultimate objective should have been to place the blame for the failed treaty firmly on Russia. A strategic approach, similar to the US denouncement of Russian violations in 2014, should have preceded any talk of withdrawing from the treaty. This messaging would have focused the attention of the international community on Russian violations, ultimately making the withdrawal announcement a seemingly rational final step.

Moreover, the United States’ allies should have been at the very least informed of the administration’s intentions before any announcement was made. Not only is that a common courtesy, but it would also have provided those allies the opportunity to prepare unified statements denouncing Russian actions. Instead, President Donald Trump, after a campaign rally in Nevada in October 2018, spoke publicly about his plan to withdraw from the INF Treaty without first notifying America’s allies. International attention then immediately focused on how the United States was going to end the treaty rather than why it was going to end.

By not laying the proper groundwork, the United States lost control of the narrative. To many, controlling the narrative may seem inconsequential given that the treaty was between the United States and Russia. Russia now understands that violating a treaty with the United States has consequences. But despite this understanding, the perspective of the international community matters.

In the 21st century, interstate competition is most commonly found in the gray zone between diplomatic interactions and direct military conflict. According to US Navy Captain (ret) Philip Kapusta’s white paper, “The Gray Zone,” this competition is characterized by challenges that are aggressive, ambiguous and perspective-dependent. Due to these characteristics, effective operations in the gray zone often require actors to construct favorable narratives. The stronger the narrative, the greater the ability to dictate international and local support, direct public outrage and define the very conflict itself.

Controlling the narrative not only applies to the nuclear political paradigm, but it has also become equally as important as the decision-making pertaining to the treaties themselves. Inherent in the ability to construct new treaties and maneuver other nuclear powers into entering those treaties is the ability to control international opinion. If the United States wants to continue providing the benchmark for global nuclear stability, then it must embrace two points of understanding — namely, that there exist repercussions for not only violating treaties, but also for not controlling the narrative.

*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.