The foundations of global strategic stability have been crumbling, especially but not only between the United States and Russia. With the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in August 2019 and from the Open Skies Treaty (OST) in November 2020, the United States sacrificed two more opportunities to engage and modify outdated arms agreements to address today’s realities. That makes the Biden administration’s proposal yesterday to extend the New START treaty with Russia for five years, an idea the Kremlin also has floated, that much more crucial. Otherwise, it would expire on Feb. 5, and the world would lose the one remaining agreed framework for nuclear verification measures with Russia. That, in turn, would increase the uncertainty and the likelihood of mistrust and miscalculation between two countries that still hold the world’s largest nuclear weapon stockpiles by far.
But even with that extension, it is clear that the longstanding architecture of bilateral arms control is disintegrating, and strategic stability has become an even more complex objective to obtain. Technologically, the “grey zones” that exist below the threshold of military conflict are ripe for exploitation — the use of drones, cyber, and disinformation campaigns, for example, have dramatically altered the battlefield. New rules regarding red lines and what constitutes “a military attack” within these grey zones have yet to be determined.
New approaches to finding strategic stability would have to include not only traditional missile defenses, but also rules of the road related to the malignant use of non-traditional military means as well as new technologies of defense to include cyber developments in the grey zones. In addition, technology is evolving to allow non-state actors to wage war almost as effectively in some areas as the most well-armed states. And both bilateral and multilateral mechanisms are disintegrating.
Unfortunately, multilateral mechanisms to negotiate in these spaces, such as the Conference on Disarmament, have ossified or become obsolete. Whereas the conference and its predecessor organizations made formidable contributions to international arms control in negotiating the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (1968), the Biological Weapons Convention (1972), the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993), and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1996), it confronts insurmountable structural and procedural challenges. Not only does its membership reflect the geopolitical and military realities of the 1970s, it can only take up one issue at a time, and all decisions, whether substantive or procedural, require consensus. More problematic, Russia and China have no interest in engaging in a meaningful dialogue to address these grey zones; waging war below the threshold of actual military conflict is currently their only means to challenge U.S. military dominance.
Furthermore, the breakdown in bilateral nuclear arms control and the rise of asymmetric threats is only one part of the problem. The demise of multilateral arms control – nuclear and other – may also be imminent.
Fragile Mechanisms to Stop the Spread of Nuclear Weapons
The nuclear nonproliferation regime, for instance, appears increasingly fragile. The recent conclusion of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, currently signed by 84 states, may appear like bold progress to some. To others, it harkens further fragmentation in support for the original nuclear grand bargain, codified by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and further buttressed by the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency. This bargain of nuclear haves and have-nots, with its promise of eventual full disarmament, was always a time-limited fix to the promise and perils of nuclear fission. The fragmentation of support indicated by the nuclear ban treaty – as Durward Johnson and Heather Tregle noted in Just Security, the signatories included none of the states with nuclear weapon capability — and the increasingly widespread availability of nuclear knowhow could hasten the implosion of the NPT, unless creative, long-term solutions can be conceived of and implemented.
What is true for nuclear weapons is even more acute for chemical and biological weapons. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is steadily losing importance as advances in chemistry make the instrument outdated. Russia’s use of Novichok agents not listed in the CWC for political assassinations and the use of widely available industrial chemicals to kill or intimidate large numbers of civilians in Syria and Iraq have exposed weaknesses in the treaty and eroded the no-use norm.
Advances in biotech make the Biological Weapons Convention seem quaint in its simplicity, and it never was buttressed by a verification protocol or multilateral organization like the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to verify states’ compliance. Treaties barring the development or use of chemical or biological weapons remain a nice-to-have, but they no longer address the scope of the problem.
All of these agreements and negotiating arrangements are anachronistic. As the means of power are increasingly democratized and sovereign borders are no bulwark against these threats, we must rethink the importance of collective solutions in managing threats. Whereas previously only states possessed the capability to make war, now small groups and individuals have the ability to incite mass disruption or deliver deadly weapons on a previously inconceivable scale.
Climate Change in the Equation
And in this complex morass of limited rules and seemingly unlimited technological potential, climate change will become a driver for states to seek greater military might. States without large armies will see arable land and freshwater sources disappear, increasing their motivation to defend what they have. As a result, they may reach for the foremost equalizer – nuclear weapons. This becomes increasingly probable as the nonproliferation regimes erode due to technological advances and insufficient attention to their support.
States with lesser military capability would more probably reach for cheaper asymmetric weapons to level the playing field, such as cyber. However, the most recent U.S. Nuclear Posture Review states that the United States may use nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear attack; this policy shift makes a nuclear deterrent the only true equalizer.
Reducing tensions and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East was seen as key to progress in strengthening the NPT. This is now a pipe dream. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Deal, albeit limited in scope and duration, provided the one positive sign that the Middle East’s potential WMD proliferation powder keg could be defused. The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the agreement without a plan B not only threw our European and Russian partners in the agreement under the bus, it also injected even greater uncertainty into a region rife for arms racing and tired of living up to NPT commitments that others in the region never signed onto. Hopefully, this problem can begin to be effectively addressed in the Biden administration, and secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken made clear in his confirmation hearing this week that it would be a priority.
Lastly, the United States also must confront the precipitous loss of intellectual horsepower in understanding how to negotiate and verify a new generation of arms control instruments. A significant gap exists between the expertise pertinent to existing treaties and their respective verification protocols and technical procedures and what comes next.
Bridging that gap will require bringing traditional arms control treaty negotiation and verification experts together with their much younger policy and technology cohorts to devise integrated solutions for the next generation of arms control instruments. As one example, prior to the U.S. decision to exit the Open Skies Treaty, Defense Department experts were looking at a range of options to update and improve the treaty’s wherewithal to address today’s world, including taking into account the application of new procedures and technologies. In each instance, updating and modernizing the objectives, obligations, and measures for verification should include a more diverse range of expertise than is currently available.
One positive note will be if savvy and knowledgeable young cadres of experts demonstrate quickly that they not only understand the historical approach to addressing these dangers, but also can muster creative ideas to address the threats in today’s world through the constructive application of new technologies. Perhaps this next generation will understand better than their forebearers that one state’s insecurity begets another’s.
Greta Thunberg’s message of “shame on you” to the older generations for leaving a climate crisis to her generation pertains not only to rising sea levels and temperatures. She could have extended the same message to the precarious situation we are leaving to the next generation in strategic instability and international insecurity. As with climate change, so with arms control: clinging to outdated notions of sovereignty will only make everyone less secure.