In a world with nuclear weapons, every agreement counts. So the decision by the U.S. and Russia to scrap a disarmament treaty does matter.


Demonstrators with masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump protest against the end of the INF disarmament agreement, Berlin, Germany, 1 February 2019 (Paul Zinken/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

The United States and Russia have scrapped a disarmament treaty that removed thousands of nuclear weapons from Europe. Influential voices led by the head of the United Nations now fear a new arms race.

That possibility might be more chilling to people like me who grew up during the Cold War than it is to millennials or GenXers who consider the Berlin Wall a history lesson and not a vivid memory.

Perhaps the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was out of date long before President Donald Trump suspended U.S. participation in it on February 1. But that doesn’t mean it was useless.

Trump said Russia had deployed cruise missiles with a range of 2,500 kilometers, violating the treaty’s ban on ground-launched weapons with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

Russia denied the claim, originally raised six years ago by the Obama administration. But it, too, has now repudiated the treaty, which lapsed on August 2.

Not only was the INF designed for an earlier generation of weapons, it was also a bilateral treaty with no reference to China, which has emerged in recent years as a challenger to American power and is asserting its military might in Asia.

To assess the relevance of the INF today and the implications of its demise, it’s helpful to look at what it and other nuclear disarmament treaties have achieved.

A childhood clouded by fear of nuclear war

My childhood was clouded by fear of nuclear war. News photos made us familiar with mushroom clouds from Soviet and American hydrogen bomb tests. We were taught about the effects of blast and radiation, and were drilled on the precautions to take if a missile attack was imminent.

In Britain, we were told we would have four minutes’ warning.

In the 1962 Cuban missiles crisis, I listened in bed on a transistor radio to U.S. President John Kennedy’s speech, broadcast live at 1:00 am London time, in which he announced that the U.S. navy would sink any Soviet ship that tried to bring missiles to Cuba.

Because he spoke so calmly and precisely, his words carried far more conviction than if he had resorted to bluster and invective.

“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced,” he said.

No one could doubt that Kennedy was deadly serious.

The next day, no one in math class could concentrate. All eyes were on the hands of the school clock as they moved toward 12 noon, when Russian ships were expected to turn back or try to force the U.S. naval blockade.

Ten days later, our principal told the school: “A week ago, I honestly did not know whether we would all be alive today.”

No one thought he was exaggerating.

Non-proliferation: a Faustian pact

It was against this background that efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, initiated in the 1950s, began to gather force, resulting in the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The NPT has been described as a Faustian pact between the five then declared nuclear powers — Britain, China, France, the Soviet Union and the United States — and other signatories.

Non-nuclear states agreed to forswear atomic weapons. In exchange, the five committed themselves to the ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament and agreed to offer all nations equal access to transfers of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. The International Atomic Energy Agency was set up to verify compliance with the treaty through inspections of nuclear sites by its experts.

A total of 191 countries have joined the NPT. Only India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan have refused to sign it.

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, argues that the United States should not be shackled by international treaties that other states might violate.

But international agreements can have a kind of moral suasion. South Africa and Argentina both abandoned covert nuclear programmes to join the NPT.

One disarmament treaty can lead to another …

The remarkable, if imperfect, consensus produced by the NPT, reaffirmed at five-year review conferences at the UN, has helped engender other agreements.

These include the Strategic Arms Limitation and subsequent Strategic Arms Reduction treaties covering Soviet and American intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The INF, too, created a climate of confidence, largely through on-site inspections by Soviet and American experts of bases in each other’s territory to verify that silos were empty and missiles destroyed.

Under the INF, the two countries together dismantled a total of 1,846 Soviet and 846 American missiles — the first elimination of an entire category of nuclear weapons.

What is more, they reduced other classes of weapons. Since 1986, U.S. and Russian arsenals of nuclear armed missiles decreased from more than 50,000 to current levels of just over 13,000, with around 1,000 in the arsenals of the seven other nuclear-armed governments.

True, the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty still needs to be ratified by eight countries, including China, Israel and the United States, before it can come into force. But in the quarter century since it was adopted, only North Korea (repeatedly) and India and Pakistan (twice each) have tested nuclear weapons.

… and its death can destroy confidence.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that with the death of the INF, the world has lost “an invaluable brake on nuclear war.” Rebecca Johnson, co-founder of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons — the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize winner — said the world now faces “heightened risk of preemptive nuclear weapon use.”

Laura Kennedy, former U.S. permanent representative to the conference on disarmament in Geneva, said the treaty’s “termination could be both unsettling in Europe and could lead to new arms competition in other areas, such as Asia.”

After the collapse of the INF, the last remaining arms control treaty is the 2010 New Start agreement limiting U.S. and Russian strategic warheads. But Bolton has said it is unlikely to be extended when it expires in 2021.

Before then, however, is the 2020 review of the NPT, and no one can be optimistic about the outcome. After a successful 2010 review produced recommendations for follow-on actions, the 2015 conference ended without agreement.

The greatest apparent danger of a nuclear clash today is over Kashmir, following the recent decision by the Indian government to effectively annex the province. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir.

Two minutes to midnight

The possible weakening of the NPT could undermine the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons. It might also embolden those who seek to circumvent the treaty’s provisions.

Anticipating such a move, two U.S. Senators — Democrat Chris Van Hollen and Republican Lindsey Graham — are sponsoring a bill to prevent the export of nuclear technology and equipment to Saudi Arabia in the absence of tough safeguards against their military use.

Earlier, in what Foreign Policy magazine called a “bipartisan rebuke” of Trump, a group of senators vowed to block $8 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had previously declared a national security emergency to bypass Congress and expedite such deals, citing the threat from Iran, which the Trump administration accuses of seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

The world has become a more complex, and in many ways a more dangerous, place since the INF was signed. International cooperation to prevent what the UN Charter calls “the scourge of war” has rarely been more needed.

Last year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset its Doomsday Clock, representing the probability of a man-made catastrophe, at two minutes to midnight, the closest to apocalypse since 1947.

(For another story on the INF, click here.)


  1. What is the INF Treaty?
  2. Which countries have not signed the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty.
  3. Do you think nuclear war is more or less likely than during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Robert Holloway had a long career at Agence France-Presse as a journalist and editor before becoming director of the AFP Foundation, the international media training arm of the global news agency. A British-born French citizen, he joined AFP in 1988 and served as Sydney bureau chief, foreign editor, head of the English desk in Paris, United Nations correspondent in New York, deputy managing editor and acting editor in chief. He is a member of the board of News-Decoder’s governing not-for-profit.

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Personal ReflectionsWe need to keep disarmament treaties, not scrap them