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Trouble in the Nuclear Order

Nov 29, 2021
  • Fan Jishe

    Professor, the Central Party School of Communist Party of China

There are so many daunting challenges in the nuclear arena that many suspect that disorder might be the defining feature of the future. Some of the challenges were created by the nuclear powers; others arise from emerging technologies.

Cooperation and coordination between major powers on nonproliferation have faded in recent years. During the Trump administration, the U.S. renewed its emphasis on strategic competition, which frustrated cooperative efforts by major powers and added difficulty in addressing proliferation concerns in northeastern Asia and the Middle East.

Enthusiasm for arms control and disarmament by the U.S. and Russia is losing steam. The two nuclear powers possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads, and they once worked pretty hard to reduce the size of their arsenals by reaching agreements such as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — START I and II in 1991 and 1993 — the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, or SORT, in 2002 and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, in 2010. This momentum has been largely maintained for almost three decades, forming a basis for other nuclear powers to exercise restraint in nuclear development.

The momentum came to a stop when Donald Trump took office. If it were not Joe Biden who came to the rescue exactly before the expiration date of New START, there would not be any legally binding agreement between U.S. and Russia today. But if the leading nuclear powers are retreating from their responsibility in arms control and disarmament, what kind of message are they sending to others?

The existing nuclear order has been challenged and tested by both the U.S. and Russia, but arguably more by the United States. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) permanently eliminated the entire category of ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles —conventional and nuclear included — and it is the first significant disarmament agreement to have a robust verification mechanism. However, it came to its gradual and final demise in 2019 when the Trump administration formally announced its withdrawal. Russia did, too. The next blow came from the Open Skies Treaty, from which both the U.S. and Russia withdrew in 2020 and 2021. What makes things worse is the recently announced nuclear-powered submarine deal involving the U.S., U.K. and Australia — another heavy blow to the shaky consensus on nonproliferation.

Another issue that haunts the nuclear powers is America’s missile defense policy. The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty is the key to strategic stability between nuclear powers and the cornerstone for arms control and disarmament. Since this treaty is long gone, there is no agreement limiting the development and deployment of missile defense systems. The United States increased its deployment of missile defense interceptors and radar in Asia and Europe in recent years, so it is virtually impossible to convince Russia along to negotiate for further nuclear cuts, let alone other nuclear powers.

Emerging technology is complicating nuclear relations among major powers as well. Cyberspace and outer space are the new domains, and how they interact and affect the nuclear domain remains to be seen. What’s more, there are neither rules nor norms guiding how such capability might be used in the future. With the expansion of players in these new domains, it is getting more and more difficult to negotiate any agreements at all. Advanced conventional weapons, artificial intelligence, unmanned aerial vehicles and other developments pose new challenges to the nuclear relationship.

All these challenges evolved over time, and they cannot be solved overnight. However, the existing nuclear order reaching a critical juncture. If no great efforts are made, that order will deteriorate to its demise. Therefore, it is both important and necessary for the nuclear powers to send out a positive message for the twice-postponed 10th Review Conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in January, and to sit down to explore ways to repair, rather than replace, the existing nuclear order.

The U.S. has lots of homework to do. In the last couple of years, it has become part of the problem, and it should take a bigger share of the blame. For instance, with great support from other major powers, it was able to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran. And then it withdrew from the deal without reasonable justification and sanctioned other major powers. The U.S. deployed missile defense systems here and there; meanwhile it has tried very hard to persuade Russia to reduce its nuclear arsenal.

There is a certain irony to this. While the United States maintains an arsenal of several thousand nuclear warheads, it wants to persuade others with arsenals of 200 to 300 nuclear warheads to join in multilateral arms control. Such an approach is basically a nonstarter. No one knows how the United States will be able to square the circle.

On the other hand, the United States could be part of the solution. The Biden administration is in the process of doing its nuclear policy review. Reports suggest there is intense debate over the role of nuclear weapons. Many believe it is time for President Biden to go bold or go home. He argued that the United States should renew its nonproliferation leadership and re-establish its credibility as a leader in arms control in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. Biden has talked the talk, and now it is time for him to walk the walk.

When the United States starts making demands over the nuclear matters, it needs to stop and notice that restraint is a good thing — both for other countries and for itself. There are lots of things the U.S. could do to repair the existing nuclear order and prevent it from collapsing.

For the nuclear-powered submarine deal with Australia, U.S. should think twice before moving forward. When it pursues its geosecurity interests over nonproliferation concerns, others might take the cue and follow suit. The proliferation of submarines may not be in the interest of the U.S. Further, if there are multiple standards in nonproliferation, who is entitled to confront other proliferators?

There is no more INF Treaty to prevent the regional arms race from going from bad to worse. The United States could follow Russia’s example and not deploy ground-based intermediate range missiles in Europe or Asia. But there is no more ABM Treaty. If an American missile defense system is to intercept a limited missile attack, as officially stated, it should take Russia’s and China’s concerns into consideration when developing and deploying such capabilities.

The New START is likely to expire within five years. Before it’s too late, the Biden administration needs to explore new ways to downsize America's costly nuclear arsenals so that someday other nuclear powers will muster the political will to get on board. As for new domains, such as advanced conventional weapons, the major powers have a special responsibility. They should start now to explore possible solutions and negotiate legally binding agreements.

The existing nuclear order may not be perfect, but no country can afford to let it fall apart. Message to the United States and other nuclear powers: Do something before it’s too late. 

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