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It’s Been 32 Years since the Conclusion of the INF Treaty Yet Arms Control Is Still Vital

Gorbachev and Reagan sign the INF Treaty

In August, the United States withdrew from the landmark INF Treaty of 1987 due to the Russian Federation’s continuing violation of the treaty and Vladimir Putin’s reckless deployment of the Russian 9M729 cruise missile. Another crucial arms control treaty, the New START agreement, is set to expire in early 2021. Recently, George Shultz and Mikhail Gorbachev called American and Russian decision makers to preserve the INF Treaty. (1)

More than thirty years ago, Shultz and Gorbachev stepped forward with President Reagan to change history’s direction. Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty on the occasion of their historic Washington Summit on December 8, 1987. The unprecedented agreement eliminated all US and Russian missiles between the ranges of 500 to 5500 kilometers. The two countries destroyed a total of 2,692 ballistic and cruise missiles by the treaty’s deadline of June 1, 1991, with verification measures that were previously unimaginable. 

The INF Treaty had enormous impact: It lowered the threat of nuclear war in Europe substantially and paved the way for negotiations on tactical nuclear and chemical weapons, as well as negotiations on conventional forces in Europe. The INF Treaty facilitated the peaceful end of the Cold War – it was the cornerstone of Euro-Atlantic security in a time awash of bold changes. Never before during the Cold War had Europeans been able to experience life largely free of the fear of nuclear war. Today, the looming expiration of the INF Treaty removes a pillar of global security.

How did Reagan and Gorbachev manage to develop mutual trust? Both reconceptualised the notion of “security:” Reagan believed that nuclear weapons, not Soviet communism, was the main enemy. The United States and the Soviet Union needed to work together to rid the world of these arsenals. Reagan and Gorbachev sought to move from mutually assured destruction to mutually assured survival and the leaders were united in their desire to reduce and ultimately to eliminate nuclear weapons. 

They created an upward spiral of trust by creating positive experiences with each other. Reagan’s and Gorbachev’s key to success was mutual engagement in as many ways as possible and to move forward in steps. NATO’s policy was another key to success: NATO’s combination of deterrence and arms control made the conclusion of the INF Treaty possible. Strength and diplomacy went together. George Shultz highlighted the relevance of NATO’s dual-track strategy: “If you go to a negotiation and you do not have any strength, you are going to get your head handed to you. On the other hand, the willingness to negotiate builds strength because you are using it for a constructive purpose. If it is strength with no objective to be gained, it loses its meaning. […] These are not alternative ways of going about things." (2) 

The INF Treaty could not have been achieved without the support of US allies. NATO’s 1979 dual-track decision reflected the parallelism between strength and diplomacy. NATO offered the Warsaw Pact a mutual limitation of medium-range ballistic missiles and intermediate-range ballistic missiles combined with the threat that in the event of disagreement NATO would deploy additional weapons in Western Europe. Deployment and negotiations were intertwined. NATO’s aim had always been to abolish Intermediate Nuclear Forces entirely. The Alliance championed the so-called zero option as the ideal outcome of the US-Soviet INF negotiations because it would remove all the INF missiles rather than simply controlling their growth in balanced ways. NATO’s solidary gave the United States negotiating leverage. In the end, Reagan’s and Gorbachev’s political leadership was decisive. Both negotiated in good faith and were instrumental in forging agreement. Both had the political will to hammer out solutions to outstanding issues. Particularly Mikhail Gorbachev had to overcome resistance in the Politburo and the Soviet military.

This kind of political willingness is absent today. Are we in for another round of INF missile deployments in Europe? It is imperative to avoid a situation where we might have no arms control and no mutual verification at all. Against the backdrop of the Trump Administration’s loathing of arms control, it will be up to the European NATO allies to conceptualize a new arms-control framework for the post-INF world. Recently, at the 2019 Munich Security Conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the idea of incorporating China into a global INF arrangement. Russia’s apparent interest in the deployment of INF weapons in Asia might give Washington a new chance to engage with the Kremlin: Both Russia and the United States have a mutual interest with regards to China’s inclusion in a new INF negotiating framework.


(1) See George P. Shultz “We Must Preserve This Nuclear Treaty”, in: The New York Times, 25 October 2018. See Mikhail Gorbachev “A New Nuclear Arms Race Has Begun”, in: The New York Times, 25 October 2018.

(2) nterview between James E. Goodby and George P. Shultz, The Foreign Service Journal, December 2016, see http://www.afsa.org/groundbreaking-diplomacy-interview-george-shultz, accessed 22 December 2017.