In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan of the United States signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). This treaty entailed the destruction of all US and Soviet land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as missile launchers with a short to medium range of 310–620 miles, and launchers with an intermediate range of 620–3,420 miles. This treaty is (or was) a fundamentally important one to international security and politics. It lead to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) of 1991, and is considered by some to be a deal that led to the end of the Cold War and eventual dissolution of the USSR. On 1st February this year Donald Trump scrapped the treaty, claiming that Russia had been in breach of it for years. Putin followed suit the day after. The treaty that ended the nuclear arms race, saw massive de-escalation in the size of nuclear arsenals, and has helped keep the world in relative peace for over 30 years no longer exists and we should be very scared indeed.
The media silence on this issue has been frankly appalling, though with Brexit dominating the headlines in Britain and Trump’s ceaseless campaign to build the wall dominating the headlines in the US, it is hardly surprising. So once again it falls to independent writers, such as myself, to shed light on this problem, however small our audiences. To that end, I want to explain the potential challenges we will face as a result of this, and perhaps even offer some possible solutions.
The above graph shows the amount of nuclear warheads in the inventory of the nuclear powers from 1945 to 2014. As you can see, the number begins to plummet from its 1986 peak of 64,449 warheads to 23,846 by the turn of the century. While still a high number, more than enough to exterminate all of humankind multiple times over, this remarkable reduction was the combined result of the INF and the START. Referring again to the graph, it’s clear that arms reduction has grinded to a near halt, a trend in line with more strained relations with Russia in recent years, as a result of events such as the conflict in, and eventual annexation of, Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014. Adding this with worrying reports that both Trump and Putin allegedly intend to bolster their nation’s nuclear arsenals, it is entirely reasonable to assume that we could be on the brink of a renewed nuclear arms race, which would see the number of warheads rise for the first time in over 3 decades. It is a simple equation; the more warheads there are, the more danger the world is in. A new arms race could have potentially catastrophic consequences in an increasingly polarised world. Whereas in the Cold War western nations and the people within them were united in their stark opposition to Russia, the same cannot be said today. As a society we cannot even come together, both nationally and internationally, to decide on a sensible way to leave the European Union, let alone to negotiate a peaceful deal with the Russians concerning nuclear weapons. This lack of an organised opposition would undermine any attempts to come up with such a deal. Another worrying affect that this will almost certainly have is further worsening tensions between Russia and the western powers. We are already in a bad place, with the 2018 Skripal poisonings in Salisbury and Russia’s support of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime ensuring that east-west relations are at their worst since the Cold War. Even if a nuclear conflict between us and Russia does not occur, who is to say that such tensions may not manifest themselves in the form of conventional, boots-on-the-ground warfare? This may not be entirely likely but it is nonetheless a possibility, one which we must avoid at all costs.
The solution to this problem is far from simple; in fact any solution I can provide is no more than speculation and prediction. My first solution would be to reject Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, and vote for someone more rational and thoughtful. Unlike North Korea, Russia cannot be persuaded into arms reduction, or perhaps even complete disarmament, with petty threats of annihilation. Their arsenal is just as large as the US’, and in a nuclear war between the two nations there would be no victor, just two former superpowers turned to dust and rubble. Putin is an experienced player on the international stage, and with this experience he could easily dupe the volatile and reactive Trump. This is assuming that Trump is not in the Russian premier’s back pocket, as an investigation into potential Russian collusion in the 2016 election continues. Due to the unlikelihood of deselecting Putin because of his tight grip on the electorate and widespread allegations of fixing previous elections, Americans must take action and deselect their president. This is, of course, only a solution if the alternative to Trump is more desirable, which in the increasingly toxic landscape of American politics is far from certain.
The next solution would be a complete change in attitude towards nuclear weapons, whereas now we see them as a barrier to peace, perhaps we could treat them as bridge to better relations. This was partially why the INF was so successful; atomic bombs were treated as a mutual danger, one which it was in the interests of both nations to quell. It was a treaty that led to further negotiation in the 1990s and, as previously stated, contributed to the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. We could only hope to negotiate a ‘new INF’ if both sides adopt this attitude, and that starts with us the public. In this vain, it is our duty, both for ourselves and for posterity, to oppose dangerous nuclear policies and support disarmament campaigns such as ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. This organisation was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 following the signing of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by 53 countries. While this was a major success more certainly needs to be done.
I hope I have convinced you that the expiry of the INF is incredibly worrying, and that we need to start doing more as a society to combat this danger. Nuclear weapons only cease to be a threat when no more exist, until then the possibility of a nuclear conflict is a thorn in the side of humanity. One day our luck will run out, deterrence will fail, and we will all pay the price. Thank you for reading.