After the INF Treaty: Unwritten Laws Instead of Agreements?

Although international regimes and institutions are among the most important 20th century achievements, their applicability in a new historical atmosphere can and must be debated, at least where it concerns national security, which is a state’s most important commitment to its citizens. This is particularly so in areas or situations where opportunities for multilateral cooperation are basically restricted by objective differences in national interests or foreign policy goals. Nuclear missiles are certainly one of these areas. But by virtue of its relationship to the topic of survival, it provides opportunities to establish more stable and objective international orders.

August 2 is the expiry date of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, one of the most important agreements of Cold War and later a pillar of world order for all supporters of multilateral governance and nuclear arms reductions. The US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, which was signed at US initiative more than 30 years ago, is a good pretext for discussing whether future world order will be based on international agreements or the real capabilities of states. The INF Treaty reflected contemporary international political realities and the objectives pursued by the US and the USSR, its signatories.

The US wanted to achieve a breakthrough at negotiations with the new Soviet leaders and present itself as a peacemaker. Richard Perle, one of the team members that conceived the idea, and later a quintessential US hawk, brilliantly described this in his work Hard Line. For the USSR, the treaty was a chance to shed part of the Cold War burden and start a long-hoped-for reconciliation with the West, something that was desired by Kremlin idealists and their leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. In addition to other elements, the elimination of medium- and shorter-range missiles helped reduce, in qualitative terms, the likelihood of a clash between the two superpowers in Europe, the main potential theater of operations at the time.

To reiterate: the treaty was of importance for both sides at the time and contained no clauses that would regulate or restrict their goal-setting. The only thing it did was scrap certain technical means. This is one reason to regret the end of the treaty, at least in terms of the formal right to develop and deploy new types of weapons. But we can’t regret the treaty as a way to make relations between leading powers more civilized, restrict their desire to weaken or neutralize each other strategically, or prevent such an eventuality.

Things are different today. Relations between the US and Russia are tense and will only grow worse in the foreseeable future. The US wants to neutralize Russia as a potentially powerful military and political ally of China, its main enemy in the coming decades. Apart from that, a full-scale China-US confrontation would require that both sides build up the widest possible range of military capabilities. It is for this reason that the Asia Pacific Region rather than Europe is the most promising deployment site for the new US missiles that have caused the demise of the INF Treaty.

Among other things, political philosophy is about why people and states they establish should obey definite rules. The main problem is that the rules and modes cannot be abstracted from the states that provide the military resources that are instrumental in forcing others to follow the rules. But if these resources don’t exist, are insufficient or cannot be used, the rules stop being effective as well. There are also situations, where the modes and rules emerge as restraints to prevent the most powerful states (such as the United States today) from implementing their national interests.

An alternative to rules and laws are so-called “unwritten laws,” or principles of behavior that stem from the inevitability of punishment for the violation of certain rules rather than from the good will to comply with them. Within this framework, a state restricts its behavior because it knows that others have the power to punish it, even at the cost of their own existence or that of mankind or its major part. It is unnatural for polities of this kind to obey laws of their own free will. But the awareness of the inevitability of this outcome and that others have the necessary resources gives rise to elements of essential, if clearly insufficient today, reciprocal recognition of the legitimacy of the main international players.

This system is certainly not ideal, not even by far. Moreover, it allows for the possibility that states, if faced with a choice between peace and state interests (principles), will choose their own interests. But this system is more natural because it’s based on necessity rather than desire, if one may say so. By agreeing to certain security restrictions, states always display good political will that if necessary can be revised to suit national interests. This necessity means that compliance with the rules of conduct is incorporated in the survival kit of states that exist in a chaotic and, as a rule, insufficiently friendly environment. Another problem is that states have no written code of conduct and have to display diplomatic flexibility and sensitivity arising from the understanding that there are boundaries never to be crossed.

As is common knowledge, the Westphalian system, for all its emphasis on the sovereign rights of states, curtailed the aggressive and expansionist manifestations of their sovereignty. However, as history has shown, this always proved inefficient when the potential cost of violating it seemed insignificant by comparison with the cost of complying with Westphalian principles. A case in point is the fate of Poland wedged in between the three European empires and weakened by their proximity. It is the awareness that others were full of resolve to defend their principles at any cost that ensured relative peace in Europe between 1815 and 1914.

It is not a very good idea to replace the crumbling 20th century international system with a new system just to regulate a different reality. If the leading powers proved incapable of forcing themselves to respect common security interests on the strategic level, why would they be able to do the same with regard to more technical matters? Most likely, they wouldn’t. So far, all talk of forming a new world order – a system of rules and universally recognized agreements instrumental in solving the main problems that face the world and its leading powers – looks improbable, even hypothetically. A much more promising scenario is that the leading world players will gradually transform their foreign policy, something that may eventually lead them to recognize the legitimacy of the existence and interests of each other. This transformation is still in the early stages. But the eventual results will form the foundation of international relations, which is stronger and more important than any agreement.  

NATO´s “Co-Ordinated Response“ – the Road to a New INF Treaty?
Gunther Hauser
For China to join a new INF Treaty, the cost would be great. China has already invested a huge amount of money into short and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, to strengthen its anti-access/area denial strategy within the so-called first island chain linking the East China with the South China Sea. China therefore does not intend to reduce this kind of arsenal. Such a reduction could weaken China’s overall defence plans in Asia.


Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.