While for many the scrapping of INF at the hands of Donald Trump is a symbolic revival of cold war geo-politics, there are many important differences, which strongly indicate there is much more to it than meets the eye. This isn’t just a second coming of cold war; rather at the heart of the matter is the U.S.’ dwindling nuclear capability vis-à-vis its competitors, Russia and China. This capability has dwindled not because the U.S. hasn’t been spending enough, but because Russia and China have developed themselves into much more (militarily) powerful states than the U.S. could imagine. Scrapping INF is thus only a step, although a major one, towards re-establishing U.S. supremacy. As a matter of fact, the writing for the return of nuclear arms race was always on the wall ever since Trump assumed presidency.
Soon after becoming the U.S. president, Donald Trump had made his intentions clear. In an interview given to Reuters in February 2017, he said that the U.S. had “fallen behind on nuclear weapon capacity”, adding further that “I am the first one that would like to see everybody – nobody have nukes, but we’re never going to fall behind any country even if it’s a friendly country, we’re never going to fall behind on nuclear power.”
This resolve to build weapon capacity boiled down in 2018 to the other resolve to expand the nuclear arsenal when the U.S. announced to scrap the 1987 INF treaty. And, in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, James Mattis brought to limelight what the U.S. is aiming at and what factors are driving the U.S. towards an expanded arsenal. The reason, according to Mattis, was the growing power and capability of Russia and China.
“We must look reality in the eye and see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be…… Russia is modernizing these weapons as well as its other strategic systems……China, too, is modernizing and expanding its already considerable nuclear forces. Like Russia, China is pursuing entirely new nuclear capabilities tailored to achieve particular national security objectives…..Elsewhere [North Korea, Iran, India, Pakistan] the strategic picture brings similar concerns….”
And, “given the range of potential adversaries….” the review argued that the need for a new nuclear strategy coupled with a “modernization programs” has never been greater than now.
The U.S. has already scrapped the INF, and president Trump’s recently delivered State of the Union address officially launched this arms race to purposefully re-establish U.S. nuclear supremacy. Trump was explicit when he said that the US is “developing a state-of-the-art Missile Defence System.” He saw no reason to be apologetic about “advancing America’s interests” and cast his decision to withdraw the US from the INF in that light.
And, while the U.S. president did show that negotiating a new treaty was possible, he was quick to re-affirm his often-repeated resolve that the US “will outspend and out-innovate all others by far” in an arms race, underscoring that he is all but concretely seeking the U.S. nuclear superiority.
This is essential for the U.S. to maintain its position of strengthen in regions that it has been dominating ever since the end of cold war, but is increasingly become incapable. A case in point may be China’s rapidly growing military capability in the South and East China Sea regions. According to U.S.’ own estimates, China has set-up about 1,000 medium and short-range missiles, purportedly intending to prevent the U.S. from entering the waters with impunity. These missiles are capable of hitting U.S. aircraft carriers and military bases, strategic tools the U.S. uses to dominate remote regions.
Another case in point may be Russia’s testing of RS-24 Yars intercontinental ballistic missile following Trump’s State of the Union speech and within hours of an earlier similar American test-firing of a Minuteman ICBM in California. Russian missile system is capable of evading missile defense systems (which Trump boasted about.) It manoeuvers during the flight and carries both active and passive decoys and has at least 60-65% chance to penetrate defences.
Sensing the seriousness of the challenges the Russians and Chinese are posing to the U.S.’ previously un-challenged supremacy, the Pentagon recently announced a special missile defence report, in which it stressed that the US should revamp its missile defence programme to combat foreign threats. It includes plans to study a possible orbital sensor system (weaponising the space) to intercept and stop missiles in their tracks. “The world is changing and we’re going to change much faster,” President Trump said as he unveiled the review.
Significantly enough, the review was announced only months after an expert commission published a report on President Trump’s defence strategy and argued the U.S.’ “margin of superiority” is now “profoundly diminished”.
In this context, the U.S. decision to scrap the INF because Russia has been “violating” it is only scapegoating; while the other developments we have noted show the true nature of the U.S. exit from INF, an exit that is nothing more than a U.S. resolve to keep the world under its unilateral domination, having the ability to hit and intervene anywhere and anytime with no strong adversaries, having the capability of hitting back the U.S., to counter.
But the true intentions notwithstanding, the possibility of the U.S. succeeding in re-establishing its supremacy is low, given that the U.S. withdrawal from the INF is only going to push its strategic peers, Russia and China, to give a befitting reply. Russia’s testing of RS-24 Yar is only an indication of what is to come.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.