Column 2 Nuclear Arms Control in an Era of Major Power Rivalry
by Brad Roberts
Nuclear arms control between the United States and Russia is at a cross roads. When the New START Treaty expires in 2021 (or 2026, if such extension is agreed by Presidents Trump and Putin), what comes next?
But before we look to the future, let’s take a quick look to the past. When the Cold War ended, there were bilateral agreements in place constraining strategic nuclear weapons (START I) and missile defenses (ABM). The treaties on intermediate-range nuclear weapons (INF) and conventional forces in Europe (CFE) helped ensure security and stability in Europe. These were supported by legally-binding military transparency measures (e.g., Open Skies Treaty and the Vienna document requiring advance notice of major military exercises) and politically-binding agreements about rules of behavior (e.g., the Helsinki Accords foreswearing the use of force to change borders). By the end of the 1990s, an additional strategic nuclear arms control agreement awaited ratification by Russia (START II). Since 2000, this regime has disintegrated. The US withdrew from the ABM treaty in
2001 and Russia then withdrew from START II. The two then agreed to the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which required no reductions and lacked verification and enforcement provisions, and which was superseded by New START in 2011. Russia suspended its participation in some agreements and violated the rest (as well as the Chemical Weapons Convention). New START is all that remains.
So what comes next? The best case is that the two countries will continue nuclear reductions via formal arms control in a verifiable way. The worst case is that the two countries return to the arms races of the Cold War, with spillover effects onto military competition in cyber space, outer space, etc. But neither best nor worst case seems likely at this time.
The best case requires that Presidents Putin and Trump are willing to compromise in a manner that sustains New START and results in a legally- binding and verifiable follow-on agreement. This is plausible but seems improbable at this time. It is plausible because each seems to want a deal of some kind, especially one that validates their “peace through strength” strategies. But it is improbable because President Putin seems to have little interest in reducing nuclear dangers; on the contrary, he has built up Russia’s nuclear forces and made repeated nuclear threats in his effort to re-make the European and global security orders. It is improbable also because the pattern of Russian cheating over the last decade has made support of a new deal by the U.S. Senate highly unlikely.
And the worst case of a return to Cold War arms racing? It is plausible because leaders in Moscow and Washington are focused increasingly on potential pathways to conflict and are making new preparations to strengthen the abilities to compete, deter, and win. But it is improbable because neither seems to have the incentive to try to compete to gain military dominance over the other and because neither seems to be able to find the money to support major increases in military spending.
So what lies between the best and worst cases? The middle case is already emerging, though its nature and characteristics are still taking shape. It is marked by nuclear modernization, the strengthening of missile defenses, intensifying military competition, the aggressive pursuit of advantages in cyber space and outer space, and a dose of ideological conflict. It is marked also by an absence of strategic trust, a reluctance to appear weak, and a Sino-Russian détente aimed at constraining the exercise of American power. In this world, competition has not turned into an arms
race. But such a race might yet re-emerge to a limited extent, in the sense that modernization decisions by one will be linked to modernization decisions by the other.
In this middle case, competition mixes with restraint. Some forms of competition are seen as unnecessary or dangerous (for example, the placement of weapons in space). Formal negotiated and ratified arms control agreements may be not possible politically. But informal measures might be seen as useful, such as norms or codes of conduct. New START’s replacement with a new treaty for deeper reductions seems unlikely. But a long-term extension of existing nuclear limits and verification mechanisms might be possible.
We should also consider the possibility that the future will bring a renewal of arms control. Such renewal requires adaptation and transformation of arms control to the new threats to the strategic stability of the 21st century, rather than the simple extension of approaches designed to meet 20th century threats. Two forms of adaptation are needed.
First, arms control must adapt to the changing structure of the international system. The bipolar world of the Cold War became unipolar with the collapse of the Soviet Union and is now well along the way to being multipolar. The arms control agreements of the Cold War were tailored for a bipolar world but fit poorly the multipolar world. The United States left the ABM treaty largely because of missile threats from proliferators. Russia abandoned its INF obligations in part because of missile threats from its neighbors. China, and perhaps others, must become an arms control partner if nuclear arms control is to survive in the 21st century.
Second, arms control must adapt to military competition in the new domains. The nuclear arms race of the 20th century has been replaced by multidomain
st strategic competition in the 21 , with a
tri-polar push for advantage in cyber space and outer space. Accordingly, nuclear arms control, even if sustained, will not deal with all of the many challenges to strategic stability.
In the Cold War, arms control became possible when both sides became fearful of dangerous forms of competition. It took hold with a shared understanding of the value of strategic stability and the absolute necessity of cooperative measures to avoid dangerous instabilities. It matured when both sides were prepared to put into law the restraint each was prepared to show the other on the basis of reciprocity. These conditions do not exist today. In the new domains, that fear has not yet taken hold. And in the multipolar environment, there is no agreement about strategic stability and how to protect it.
This is both a challenge and an opportunity for arms control. New START extension would be important for preserving an element of transparency and predictability in the U.S.-Russian strategic military relationship. But extension would merely buy time to think about the harder problem of adapting arms control strategies to 21st century purposes. The sooner we turn to that task, the sooner will arms control have a useful long-term role.
Brad Roberts is director of the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. From 2009 to 2013 he served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy. The views expressed here are his personal views and should not be attributed to any institution.