Hidden Dangers: The Perils of U.S. Withdrawal from the INF

By Jigar Khatri

Due to an ever-expanding list of daily political scandals, it is easy to miss the greater significance of a specific event. For instance, in February, the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from the foundational 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The reason given for withdrawing from this landmark agreement was the Russian deploying of illegal land-based cruise missiles. 

Despite experts generally being critical of the United States’ decision, there were several commentators that came to the administration’s defense. For example, writing in The Atlantic, Kori Schake argued that America’s allies were amply warned and went on to list China’s growing missile capabilities as a good reason for withdrawing from this “outdated treaty.”

Yet, even when acknowledging that these arguments hold a sliver of truth, scholars are pushing back. Criticizing the reasons for withdrawal, Pranay Vaddi, a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained that these INF critiques often ignore Asia’s broad political context. These complicated regional dynamics often constrain the United States and prevent it from containing China’s military capabilities with their ground-based intermediate-range systems. Moreover, recent political developments in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines make the deployment of missiles in these countries unlikely. And even if the INF’s faults were real, the administration’s casual approach to withdrawal has signaled a preference for reckless unilateralism and a renewed global arms race. 

Because of these missteps, it might be tempting to solely blame the United States for the increased dangers of nuclear proliferation. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the underlying causes of these growing threats, called the “second nuclear age,” runs deeper. 

As the 21st century progresses and climate change fuels extremism and instability, the world will become more dangerous. Coinciding with changes in the underlying security environment, a series of rapid technological changes could undermine the foundations of mutually assured deterrence. Underlining this point, Keir A. Lieber and Daryl Press, both experts in their field, explain that “leaps in weapons accuracy and the revolution in remote sensing are creating new opportunities for successful disarming strikes.” 

Scholars note that it was the existence of a secure second-strike capability that helped ensure that the Cold War principle of mutually assured destruction was even possible. It was the fear of a retaliatory strike that prevented either superpower from launching nuclear weapons for approximately 45 years. Despite this, there were many close callsserious crisesorganizational mishaps and accidents that could have escalated to a nuclear exchange had it not been for prudent decision-making and sheer luck. 

With the showdown between the United States and North Korea having faded into the background, there is a general lack of concern about the possibility of a nuclear crisis. While there are only a few foreseeable flashpoints, there is adequate reason to think that as time passes the number of dangers will grow. And while North Korea and Iran’s nuclear weapons programs receive the most attention, the risks in South Asia are often overlooked. 

Despite climate change being widely recognized as a global threat, there is little discussion of how it can drive conflict and instability. In South Asia, no place that illustrates this better than Pakistan. While it often appears in the press, there is little coverage on the country’s vulnerability to climate change. This is especially concerning given Pakistan’s existing problems with floodsextremism, and access to drinking water. To understand the unique role climate change plays in the country, an excellent example to look to is the critical city of Karachi, home to 17 million people. Given its location and susceptibility to coastline erosion, the city’s vulnerability to sea-level rises will only increase. And absent an environmental intervention in Karachi, the effects of climate change will continue to exacerbate the city’s already severe problems with water. Compounding this problem is the country’s projected population growth and existing issues of extremism. 

By stoking domestic instability, climate change has inadvertently contributed to an already dangerous arms race on the subcontinent. This escalation has led to many unsettling developments, including Pakistan’s recent deployment of tactical nukes. And while this advancement is dangerous, what is even more worrying is the reality that these issues are unlikely to stay confined to South Asia. With many of the problems that destabilize India and Pakistan’s relationship doing the same elsewhere, the world must reassess these emerging threats. Nuclear proliferation will not grind to a halt with a reversal of Trump-era policies. The United States should instead recognize that the 21st century will need a superpower with an updated perspective on nuclear proliferation to preserve global deterrence and maintain stability.  

Jigar Khatri is a graduate of Rutgers University where he majored in finance and political science. In his spare time, he volunteers for the Citizens Climate Lobby.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons