I’m not one of those people who look back on the Cold War with nostalgia. Whatever our current problems, they’re relatively mild to the threat of global nuclear war which used to seriously worry people back in the day. ‘When I were young’, as the saying goes, two massive armed blocs – NATO and the Warsaw Pact – stood face to face, ready to roll at a moment’s notice, while much of the developing world was wracked with proxy wars. It wasn’t a good time. But the very danger of it did have one positive effect – it concentrated minds and made the more sensible of them realize that ‘jaw, jaw is better than war, war’ and that it would really be to everybody’s benefit if agreement was reached to limit the upwards spiral of the arms race.
One of the common justifications for the billions of dollars spent on secret intelligence is that it helps politicians make informed, and therefore better, decisions. In reality, there is little evidence that intelligence significantly informs policy making. In his book Intelligence Power in Peace and War, former head of the British Joint Intelligence Committee, Michael Herman, argues that politicians by and large do what they want to do, ignoring intelligence when it doesn’t suit them and using it when it does. Intelligence doesn’t therefore determine policy; where it does have an effect is in the execution of policy – that is to say, once politicians have decided what they want to do, intelligence does have an impact on how the policy is put into practice. To take the example of terrorism, politicians have multiple options: wage war against the terrorists; treat the issue as a criminal one; negotiate with the terrorists; seek to undermine them by addressing social and economic grievance; and the like. Intelligence plays very little role in determining which option politicians choose. But if, for instance, they choose to wage war, then it comes in very useful in identifying targets, and so on.
Research supports this conclusion in the specific case of the United States. In a 2017 article in the academic journal Intelligence and National Security entitled ‘Why Strategic Intelligence Analysis Has Limited Influence on American Foreign Policy’, Stephen Marrin argues that ‘facts do not speak for themselves. They have to be interpreted, and that requires some form of conceptual framework to organize the information and derive inferences from it.’ If the intelligence community’s analysis differs from that of politicians, then the latter are entitled to ignore it and often do. Consequently, in the United States, ‘intelligence analysis appears to have had limited influence on national security decisions.’
The point here is that one should always be a little cautious about accepting claims that major policy decisions are driven by secret intelligence. If intelligence points in a direction in which politicians really don’t want to go, history suggests that they are most unlikely to go there regardless. If they do go there, it’s because they’re inclined in that direction in the first place.
Which brings us to the Russian 9M729 missile and America’s announcement that it will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 60 days’ time if Russia does not return to compliance with the INF Treaty. This treaty prohibits missiles with a range between 500 and 5000 kilometres. The Americans claim that the 9M729 has a range within these limits, and that by developing it Russia is therefore in violation of the INF Treaty.
Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing whether the American claims are correct. They are based entirely on secret intelligence which the United States has not made public. On the one hand, it seems that the Americans are pretty confident that their intelligence is accurate. On the other hand, they’ve been wrong about stuff before. American analysts say that since Russia already has missiles with a range of just under 500 kilometres, it makes little sense for it to develop a new missile which does the same thing. The only logical explanation for the 9M729 is that it has a longer range, within that prohibited by the INF Treaty. Analysts point to Russian fears that the American anti-ballistic missile system being deployed in Eastern Europe could be used against Russia, and suggest that the 9M729 has been developed to neutralize this threat. This may be true, but an article today in the Russian online newspaper Vzglyad suggests that the Russian approach may not have been a missile with a longer range, but rather a faster missile. According to Vzglyad, the 9M729 is designed to travel at 2.5 times the speed of sound. This requires a larger rocket, and it is this, not additional fuel tanks, which explains the 9M729’s large size.
Given the total lack of publicly available information about the missile, it is impossible to determine who is telling the truth. But even if the Americans have got it right, that doesn’t explain the decision to tear up the INF Treaty. There are many ways of dealing with contentious issues like this. These might include, for instance, negotiating some mechanism for mutual inspections of the 9M729 and the American ABM system in Eastern Europe. To return to my original point, if the Americans have decided to tear up the INF Treaty, it’s not because intelligence tells them that they have to tear it up, it’s because they believe that it’s to their advantage to do so and the intelligence provides them with the opportunity to legitimize the act.
American security policy under Trump is in the hands of hardliners, most notably James Mattis and John Bolton, who seem stuck in the ‘unipolar moment’ which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union as well as in the thinking of the post-9/11 National Security Strategy which proclaimed that the United States should acquire such overwhelming military superiority that any potential competitors would decide that it wasn’t worth the effort competing and would give up without a struggle. In short, they seem to be driven by the belief that the United States is so dominant that it has doesn’t have to fear an arms race. Arms control is thus undesirable as it constrains America from asserting its dominance. Rather than negotiating arms limitations with other countries, America can best defend itself by outspending and outbuilding potential enemies to such a degree that they are forced to submit.
This strategy, I believe, is bound to fail. America’s geopolitical challengers – primarily Russia, China, and Iran – are not about to back down. China in particular is acting with great caution, but is playing a long game, avoiding immediate confrontation but gradually building up its forces. It’s not going to stop, and will in due course become a ‘peer competitor’, no matter how much the United States tries to stop it. Russia, meanwhile, will certainly not comply with America’s ultimatum to scrap the 9M729 missile. Rather, when the USA withdraws from the INF Treaty, Russia will almost certain set about developing and deploying intermediate-range weapons systems, including not just cruise missiles (like the 9M729) but probably also ballistic missiles. The only beneficiaries will be the military industrial complexes in Russia and the United States. Everyone else will be less secure as a result.