The Lost Art of Nuclear Arms Control

12/8/1987 President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room

12/8/1987 President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

On 8 December 1987, US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty eliminating all ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers.

As the leaders shook hands in Washington, 2,692 such missiles were deployed across Europe, each armed with multiple thermonuclear warheads, ready to launch and capable of reaching their targets in 15 minutes or less. By 1 June 1991, they had all been physically destroyed, a radical de-escalation of tensions paving the way to significant reductions in both longer- and shorter-range nuclear arms, as well as conventional forces.

The INF Treaty is now widely seen as both symptom and cause of the end of the Cold War, a dramatic example of the power of diplomacy not just to respond to challenges but to change equations, hearts and minds. It was, Gorbachev dared hope in Washington that day, a “sapling which may one day grow into a mighty tree of peace”:

May December 8, 1987, become a date that will be inscribed in the history books, a date that will mark the watershed separating the era of a mounting risk of nuclear war from the era of a demilitarization of human life.

Yet nearly 30 years later, Gorbachev (now 86) felt compelled to issue an urgent “plea” to Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to “return to sanity”: to save the INF Treaty and so help arrest the “downward spiral” to disaster.

“What is happening,” Gorbachev asks, “what is the problem, and what needs to be done?”


With regard to the Treaty, in 2013, the Obama Administration privately accused Russia of producing a new medium-range, nuclear-capable land-based cruise missile; in 2014, it concluded the new missile had been tested; in February 2017, the Trump Administration declared two battalions of the missiles had been deployed.

Predictably enough, Russia is protesting its innocence, counter-accusing Washington of noncompliance by deploying ‘missile defense’ interceptor rockets of prohibited range, and by flying INF-range armed drones. But according to former senior US nuclear negotiator Thomas Graham Jr. and analyst Bernadette Stadler, even some NATO states are “ambivalent” about the American charges, as, “in order to protect sources and methods,” US officials have “thus far been unable to share…in-depth information.”

Graham and Stadler title their analysis “Save the INF Treaty: But Not by Repeating History,” alluding to NATO’s decision in the 1970s to deploy Tomahawk (cruise) and Pershing (ballistic) missiles in Western Europe in response to new Soviet SS-20 missiles, a “downward spiral” reversed only by Gorbachev’s decision in 1985 to categorically reject ‘deterrence’ and pursue disarmament. And “even if they possessed the information,” Graham and Stadler add, most “members of the alliance would be reluctant to accept new nuclear weapons on their territory,” an option reportedly under active consideration as part of President Trump’s ‘Nuclear Posture Review,’ now nearing completion.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett (DDG 104) successfully launches its second Tomahawk missile during weapons testing. (Photo by U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Carmichael Yepez, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett (DDG 104) successfully launches its second Tomahawk missile during weapons testing. (Photo by U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Carmichael Yepez, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

(Other options – watch this space for grim details – include a resumption of nuclear testing, in part to develop new, ‘usable,’ low-yield ‘mini-nukes’; expanding the range of scenarios justifying nuclear attack; letting the 2010 New START Treaty with Russia, capping long-range nuclear warheads at 1,550 each side, lapse in 2021; and abandoning even the aspirational goal, enshrined in the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of a nuclear-weapon-free world.)

Ominously, Russian officials routinely identity two major weaknesses in the 1987 accord: that it only applies to the US and Russia, allowing China to develop and deploy medium-range missiles at will; and that it only apples to ground-based systems, allowing the US to develop a new, nuclear-capable Air-Launched Cruise Missile, a highly destabilizing, first-strike weapon approved by Obama to the horror of some Democrats.

While there is merit to Moscow’s critique of the treaty, in Gorbachev’s view the answer is first to save it from collapse, then work to build new, broader agreements. While “both sides,” he writes, “have raised issues of compliance” which are “difficult to evaluate,” “one thing is clear: the problem has a political as well as a technical aspect. It is up to the political leaders to take action.” Noting that “it is far from normal that the presidents of major nuclear powers meet merely ‘on the margins’ of international gatherings,” Gorbachev called on both sides “to prepare and hold a full-scale summit” focusing “on the problems of reducing nuclear weapons and strengthening strategic stability. For should the system of nuclear arms control collapse, as may well happen if the INF Treaty is scrapped, the consequences, both direct and indirect, will be disastrous.”

“The closer,” he argues, “that nuclear weapons are deployed to borders, the more dangerous they are: there is less time for a decision and greater risk of catastrophic error. And what will happen to the NPT if the nuclear arms race begins anew? I am afraid it will be ruined.”


The INF Treaty is a rare example of nuclear-weapon states taking seriously their legally-binding NPT obligations to reduce and eliminate their arsenals. By 1987, Gorbachev was anticipating the achievement of ‘Global Zero’ – nuclear abolition – by the year 2000, the cornerstone of a comprehensively demilitarized, cooperative world order. In his worst nightmares, he could never have anticipated an increased reliance on war as an instrument of foreign policy in the 21st century, an increase in nuclear-armed states from six (US, Russia UK, France, China, Israel) to nine (India, Pakistan, North Korea), and the expansion of a proudly-nuclear NATO alliance to the borders of Russia, provoking a viciously nationalistic, equally militaristic response.

On November 21, Presidents Trump and Putin spoke by phone for an hour (to the myopic disgust of numerous commentators, indignant the ‘Eagle’ was talking to the ‘Bear’ at all). According to the White House, the leaders discussed a wide range of issues, including the nuclear threat from North Korea, but not the INF Treaty or any other nuclear arms control issue. It is this gross, disdainful neglect of disarmament that distresses Gorbachev most; and while there has been much talk in Washington recently of ‘nuclear authorization’ – the scandalous ease with which a US president could initiate a nuclear attack – that question is intimately related to the number, types and range of weapons at the president’s command, and the policy and doctrine s/he is bound by.

Chris Murphy, junior US Senator for Connecticut.

On November 14, during the first Congressional hearing on nuclear authorization in 41 years, Senator Chris Murphy (Democrat) spoke for millions of Americans “concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic, that he might order a nuclear strike that is wildly out of step with US interests.” Such apocalyptic fears have been heightened, understandably, by Trump’s “fire and fury” stoking of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

On October 26, Senator Ed Markey (Democrat) introduced legislation ‘To Prevent an Unconstitutional Strike Against North Korea.’ At the November 14 hearing, Markey warned “there could be plans in place, right now…to launch a pre-emptive war against North Korea using American nuclear weapons, without consulting Congress.”

In fact, as noted in an earlier article,  what the White House seems to be planning is a preventive war, designed not to forestall an imminent nuclear attack (justified in principle under international law) but to prevent North Korea from acquiring the ability to pose such a threat in the future. The precise demarcation between ‘pre-emptive’ and ‘preventive,’ however, is a matter the Administration itself would feel entitled, for reasons of ‘national security,’ to define; it could argue, for example, North Korea was ‘about’ to complete its nuclear and missile testing programs, bringing the US mainland in range. Similar arguments, indeed, were used by the George W. Bush Administration to justify its preventive ‘war of choice’ against Iraq.


Murphy, Markey and other Senators were rightly unpersuaded by the hearing’s star military witness, retired head of strategic nuclear forces Robert Kehler, that responsible military commanders would be “obligated to follow legal orders,” but “not obligated to follow illegal orders.” Imagining himself in such a position, Kehler said he would tell the President “I have a question about this” and “I’m not ready to proceed.” Republican Senator Ron Johnson asked the obvious question: “And then what happens?” Answer (delivered with nervous laugh): “Well, I don’t know exactly. Fortunately we’ve never…”

20th anniversary of first meeting between Pdt Reagan and M.Gorbatchev in November 1985 646-4767 from left to right: Mr. A. Bessmertnikh, former Minister for Foreign Affairs of USRR, Sergei Ordzhonikidze, UN Director-General and Mikhail Gorbatchev.

20th anniversary of first meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in November 1985. From left to right: Mr. A. Bessmertnikh, former Minister for Foreign Affairs of USRR, Sergei Ordzhonikidze, UN Director-General and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum on November 18, General John Hyten, Kehler’s successor as strategic commander, stated that if he received what he believed to be an illegal order, “Guess what’s going to happen? I’m going to say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’” But under American law, and according to long-standing military doctrine, the US is ‘entitled’ to use nuclear weapons first in the national interest (defined in any crisis by the executive), for reasons not limited to pre-empting a nuclear attack on itself or its allies. Under international law, the case for such an attack would crumble; but Pentagon commanders are bound only to obey and uphold the US Constitution.

Amidst the furor over nuclear authorization we need to train our gaze, with Gorbachev, on the bigger picture: the need to end the nuclear age. Detailed NPT Disarmament Action Plans, adopted unanimously in 2000 and 2010, called on the nuclear-armed states to reduce not just the numbers but the strategic significance of nuclear weapons, to take them off hair-trigger alert, vow never to use them first (a step Obama seriously considered in his last months in office), disavow them as weapons of war, etc. If Washington had taken that path it would not now be legally or doctrinally possible for Trump to order a first strike, and the chance of nuclear use by accident or miscalculation would be low rather than high.

Nuclear arms control, in short, is part and parcel of nuclear crisis control, making such crises less likely to occur and far easier to manage and defuse. No single person – or state – should have the ‘authority’ to kill millions of people in minutes. But there’s only one durable, dependable way to control the nuclear monster: disarm it.



Sean Howard



Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.