Envisioning Nuclear Arms Control in Challenging Times
The Korea Times Column

Envisioning Nuclear Arms Control in Challenging Times

On 21 February, as Russia marked one year of its “special military operations” in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin announced the suspension of Russia’s participation in the United States-Russia New START treaty. He stated that its resumption was only possible if the United States “cut off support for Ukraine and bring France and the United Kingdom into arms control talks.” Describing the Russian action as “legally invalid,” the United States announced “countermeasures” on 1 June. As a result, bilateral data exchanges, notifications and inspections remain in abeyance. No negotiations are in sight to extend the treaty, which is set to expire in 2026. The era of bilateral nuclear arms control, as the world has known it, will come to an end with the expiration of this treaty.

Reviving the process to create other similar instruments appears exceedingly difficult. This is not only because of the current low in US-Russia relations, but also because both sides believe that future nuclear arms control (NAC) can no longer be a bilateral affair. Russia wants the inclusion of the UK and France, while the United States wants China’s involvement. These countries, however, are reticent.

China, in fact, is suspicious of NAC and is not convinced of the desirability of strategic stability. It believes that instability and unpredictability enhance deterrence. Hence, there is no shared interest in NAC, as there once was between Washington and Moscow after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Not only do the nuclear weapon states (NWS) lack consensus on NAC, but further complications arise from the presence of four nuclear-armed states that are not members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). These states, nevertheless, are part of adversarial dyads with the “recognized” NWS. The matrix gets more complex given the lack of nuclear parity between adversaries. In the past, a rough military equivalence between the United States and the USSR/Russia had made NAC based on ceilings or cuts in numbers a feasible proposition.

But today, the nine nuclear possessors face force asymmetries of many kinds ― nuclear, conventional, as well as in emerging domains such as hypersonic missiles, artificial intelligence-enabled autonomous systems and cyberwarfare. The perceived potential implications of these new technologies on nuclear deterrence make NAC a complicated affair. In fact, as nations build military capabilities to hedge against future uncertainties, they create new security dilemmas and generate suspicions based on worst-case assumptions about the intentions of other states.

To break free from this cycle of challenges, it is imperative for nations to reach a consensus on some revised nuclear “rules of the road” that accommodate the evolving geopolitical, technological and nuclear environment. However, asymmetries in capability and deterrence practices will likely not allow nations to undertake meaningful NAC without preceding confidence-building or restoration measures. Dialogues to share concerns and understand perspectives on competitive relationships will have to be the starting point.

One way to set the stage for these dialogues could be embracing the prevention of nuclear use as a shared goal in a joint statement. It is worth recalling that the foundational statement made by Reagan and Gorbachev in the late 1980s that nuclear war cannot be won and should not be fought played a significant role in facilitating bilateral NAC.

However, it is important to note that when this statement was made, the two nuclear nations were referring to a full-scale strategic war. That context has today changed for two reasons. Firstly, because the dangerous perception of “limited” nuclear wars as “winnable” propositions in regional contingencies has gained currency in nuclear discourse. This perception could tempt nuclear use. Such a possibility was somewhat recognized in the G20 Bali Leaders’ Declaration in November 2022 with the statement that “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible.”

A second, equally worrisome trend is that more nuclear possessors are leaning towards brinkmanship behavior and ambiguous postures for deterrence. Consequently, the risk of inadvertent nuclear war is higher than deliberate nuclear use. This risk also needs to be captured in a commitment by states that “the use, intentional or inadvertent, or threat of use is inadmissible.” Such an overarching pronouncement would bring attention to actions at the strategic and operational levels, as well as those pertaining to the safety and security of nuclear arsenals, to ensure the non-use of nuclear weapons.

The upcoming NPT preparatory committee meeting in August of this year could be a good place for NWS to make such a commitment. The four non-NPT members could also support it from the outside. Such an action would help mellow frayed tempers of nuclear possessors, and help build bridges with the non-nuclear weapon states. It could also create conditions for future NAC which will have to consider new forms, new content, and new actors.

About the Author
Dr. Manpreet Sethi is senior research adviser of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). She is also a distinguished fellow of Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. She is author/co-author/editor of nine books and over 120 academic papers. She is a recipient of the prestigious K Subrahmanyam award and commendations by Chief of Air Staff, Indian Air Force, and head of Strategic Forces Command for excellence in strategic and security studies.

Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts, and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts, and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to apln@apln.network. 

Image: Representatives of the five nuclear weapon states (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States) (UN Photo, Jean Marc Ferré)

This article was published in The Korea Times on 7 June 2023 as part of a dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.