The Future of Nuclear Arms Control: Time to Change Course

Sergei Ryabkov of Russia on left, with Marshall Billingslea of US
Deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov of Russia, left, with Marshall Billingslea, US envoy for arms control, in a tweet posted on June 22 by the latter after the first round of nuclear-arms bilateral talks in Vienna. The essayists say that Washington’s arms controllers “seem stuck in the unipolar worldview of the 1990s.”

VIENNA — As Russian and American leaders have gathered once more here to discuss bilateral arms control, some experts wonder if arms control is outdated. Earlier this year, Chris Ford, a United States official for international security and nonproliferation, said that discussions on arms control amounted to mere “nuclear identity politics,” and Russia’s Vladimir Yermakov, Ford’s counterpart in Moscow, said that bilateral arms control is “exhausted.”

These sentiments point to a larger trend in arms control — today’s framework is designed for the realities of the past. Arms controllers today can and should learn lessons from recent history: it is time to bring arms control into the future.

Nuclear arms control was once immune to disagreements in other fields because Russian and American leaders understood that it was too important to risk a total breakdown. This does not appear to be the case now, when the five official nuclear powers cannot even agree to reiterate the Reagan-Gorbachev doctrine that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Arms control had a “golden age” when the Soviet Union and the US created a large, complex arms control framework. Today, all but one of the agreements in the framework has either expired or been abrogated due to disagreements on implementation. The only bilateral agreement that remains is New START, which meaningfully reduced deployed Russian and US nuclear warheads and means of their delivery.

New START is due to expire in February 2021 but can be extended for up to five years. However, the US has been slow to engage in negotiations on extending the treaty because it wants China to participate in the talks. China was neither imagined as a party to New START nor will it be interested in joining the treaty until the numbers in Russian and US stockpiles resemble those of China, a gap that is too unrealistic to bridge.

In general, Washington arms controllers seem stuck in the unipolar worldview of the 1990s, when Russia had just formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s nuclear abilities were relatively negligible. Today, Russia is resurgent and assertive, while China has emerged as the third global superpower. The world today is not unipolar or bipolar but multipolar.

Extending New START is important. But while the demands from the American side remain so inflexible and one-sided, an extension seems unlikely, at least under the current administration. American arms control experts must recall the days of the “art of the possible,” when a deal may not have been wholly satisfactory to any party, but arms reductions were accomplished nonetheless.

Moreover, those engaged in arms control discussions should take a moment to remember why this field was once sacrosanct. They should recall the lessons of the Cuban missile crisis, when President Kennedy declared that the US would “regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

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They should remember how close we came to nuclear war in October 1962.

Outside the obstinance of today’s arms controllers, another factor complicates the creation of a new agreement — emerging technology. On the one hand, expansive modernization efforts are underway in the US and Russia, which include frightening and destabilizing new weapons. Hypersonic missiles threaten conventional wisdom about response time in case of a first strike, and nuclear-powered torpedoes and cruise missiles far exceed the threshold of credible deterrence.

On the other hand, disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence, offensive cyberweapons and lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) blur the lines of how we define threats and our understanding of where they come from.

There are no internationally accepted rules or regulations for any of these technologies. Modernization is taking place despite a clear intent to increase the deadliness of these weapons amid widespread condemnation. There are efforts in the United Nations to define the rules for cyberspace and LAWS, but they have been so far unsuccessful in creating a framework that the major nuclear powers can all agree on. This is largely, again, because the issues are no longer high priorities for the countries commanding the largest nuclear arsenals.

Moreover, multilateral discussions on these issues under UN frameworks are most often conducted as open-ended working groups (OEWGs) and groups of governmental experts (GGEs). However, both of these groups are often as politicized as any other discussion. For example, in the cybercontext, the US backs a group of governmental experts, while Russia backs the former type.

The choice of group in which to conduct negotiations can be politically strategic. While GGEs are consensus-based, limited-membership groups, OEWGs may be joined by any interested UN member state. Choosing one type over another can help the backers of that group better control the outcome. Furthermore, as the two groups run concurrently and are both criticized by opposing governments, there is little reason to expect results from these processes.

So, what is the answer? First, governments will have to muster the political will to return arms control to where it belongs — a league of its own, without being subject to collateral damage from other disagreements.

Second, lacking political will, nuclear risk reduction must receive full, immediate global attention. This is where emerging technology is useful. Not all new technology is destabilizing — for example, distributed ledger technology and satellite imagery may help to bolster verification in arms control, rather than threaten it. In addition, initiatives like the nuclear security summits, which took place under President Obama, could be repeated and adapted to address the challenges of today.

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Finally, the world’s nuclear powers would do well to reassess the role of nuclear weapons in their own strategies. Are these weapons a shield for security, for safeguarding populations? Or are they a status symbol of projecting power? And would the modernization of strategic nuclear forces really be relevant to protecting people and hence a priority? Would the huge amounts of money spent on armaments not be better used to help a nation’s economy, to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the population, to return to intensifying international coordination and cooperation?

We’ve considered these questions in this analysis published by the Development and Peace Foundation. We hope that governments will also ask themselves these urgent questions in pursuing a better, safer future for all of us.

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Angela Kane and Noah Mayhew

Angela Kane and Noah Mayhew

Angela Kane is a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation and vice president of the International Institute for Peace. She is also a visiting professor at SciencesPo in Paris and a member of its Strategic Council. Kane serves on the Council of the United Nations University in Tokyo and several nonprofit boards in the United States and Europe. She is also the former High Representative for Disarmament Affairs at the UN.

Noah Mayhew is a research associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, focusing primarily on nuclear nonproliferation, IAEA safeguards and nuclear verification, arms control, US-Russian relations and the peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology. Mayhew has master's degrees from the dual-degree program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

1 thought on “The Future of Nuclear Arms Control: Time to Change Course”

  1. In order to eliminate nuclear weapons we must also end war. How? We must create a “new UN” and replace the outdated and fatally flawed UN Charter. Democratic World Federalists are calling for UN Charter Review (the SAN FRANCISCO PROMISE) in order to compare the failed Charter to the EARTH CONSTITUTION designed to establish what Einstein and other world federalists knew all along: Only world federal government can do the job. Agreements based on multilateral treaties are too unreliable. They are not trustworthy. The Center for UN Constitutional Research has outlined the legal requirement for Charter Review. It can, and must happen.

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