New START will be extended for five more years. This means that the unraveling of numerous arms control agreements, which has been progressing for two decades, has been halted for the time being. We are still far from a renaissance of nuclear disarmament. For this to happen, the risks of nuclear escalation must be minimized and sub-strategic nuclear weapons must be addressed. It also requires engaging China and upgrading bilateral arms control to the multilateral level. How can this succeed?
U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed to extend the New START Treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) for five years. Had this renewed agreement not been reached, the last remaining nuclear disarmament agreement between the two largest nuclear powers would have automatically expired on Feb. 5, 2021. In 2010, the treaty was negotiated and signed by then-Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, and limited the number of delivery systems for strategic nuclear weapons (with long, intercontinental ranges) to 800 each, and reduced the warheads ready for deployment to 1,550. Within the terms of the agreement, the total number of missiles and bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons may not exceed 700 each. Mutual monitoring and verification measures were also agreed to ensure compliance.
This renewal halts for the time being the unraveling of numerous arms control agreements that has been progressing for two decades. During the Trump administration almost all agreements between Russia and the U.S. and its allies on the limitation and transparency of their military capabilities fell victim to this process. For example, the U.S. withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) on the elimination of intermediate-range nuclear delivery systems and terminated the Open Skies Treaty on joint reconnaissance flights. For its part, Russia reacted with its own withdrawal from both treaties.
The salvation of New START puts an end to the dismantling of nuclear arms control for the time being and freezes the arms spiral for a certain period, albeit at a relatively high level. This is far from a renaissance of nuclear disarmament. But it does create urgently needed room for maneuver. Precious time has been gained to adapt the nuclear arms control architecture to the new realities.
Therefore three crucial developments have to be considered: 1) the aggressive deterrence policy of the two largest nuclear powers, Russia and the United States, and their expansion of deployment options, 2) the rise of the nuclear power China, 3) the call for multilateralization of nuclear arms control emanating from about two-thirds of the international community. Where do you start?
1) How to reduce risks and integrate sub-strategic weapons systems?
After all, the Russian and U.S. presidents have declared their willingness to resume the dialogue between Moscow and Washington on disarmament and arms control. This is urgently needed because the United States and Russia together possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear forces. They have also developed new warheads and delivery systems in recent years that the New START treaty does not address. In particular, sub-strategic nuclear weapons (with lower explosive power and short or medium range delivery systems), some of which are also deployed on NATO allies territories, are not covered. This threatens European security in particular, as these weapons systems are mostly conceived for so-called limited nuclear warfare, which is aimed at proxy scenarios that avoid direct confrontation between the United States and Russia.
Thus, to reduce the risk of nuclear escalation, it is precisely the sub-strategic capabilities that must be included in future disarmament negotiations. This will be difficult if the talks continue to revolve only around questions of capabilities, i.e., nuclear hardware. The nuclear software, i.e., the design of doctrines and deployment scenarios, must not be ignored. In other words, the aggressive deterrence policy of the United States and Russia, which even considers nuclear strikes in the event of a conventional attack, must be defused. This will make it possible to reduce deployment options and dispense with corresponding weaponization. Germany has a special security policy interest in working toward such a defusing of the deterrence policy and should therefore advocate for minimum deterrence and the renunciation of first use within the alliance, but also vis-à-vis Russia.
2) How to involve China?
An extension of New START almost failed because the Trump administration imposed unfulfillable conditions, including the participation of China, which is modernizing and upgrading its nuclear forces just like the other nuclear powers. It is not surprising, however, that China does not want to engage in a trilateral agreement with Russia and the United State. After all, China’s arsenal of about 320 warheads is not even one tenth of the arsenals of Russia (6,375) and the USA (5,800). Moreover, the People’s Republic sees itself as a purely defensive nuclear power because of its no-first-strike policy. Nevertheless, as much as one would like to get rid of the legacy of the Trump administration, new U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is right in emphasizing that future arms control talks must also reduce the threat posed by China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal, and that New START can only be the beginning of addressing the security challenges of the 21st century.
For China’s inclusion in a broader nuclear arms control regime to succeed, France and the United Kingdom, whose nuclear forces are of a similar magnitude at 290 and 214 warheads, respectively, must also be committed. China and Russia have long demanded this for justifiable reasons. This would also make sense because these five states form the group of permanent members in the United Nations Security Council and are already engaged in exchanges on nuclear security and global nuclear order issues in the so-called P5 (Permanent Five) format, albeit with meager results so far (such as a common nuclear glossary). They are also united by the fact that they are the only nuclear-weapon states recognized as such by the 191-state Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Through the NPT, they share an obligation to non-nuclear-weapon states to advance disarmament and reduce the risk of nuclear war.
Future nuclear disarmament and arms control negotiations should therefore extend beyond bilateral agreements by Russia and the United States and be complemented by binding multilateral agreements. In a P5 arrangement for nuclear arms control, a 2-tier approach could be pursued. In addition to substantial disarmament of the exorbitant Russian and U.S. arsenals, including sub-strategic forces, it should agree for all to freeze any modernization of warheads and delivery systems aimed at expanding operational capabilities and to refrain from increasing the number of nuclear forces, even in smaller arsenals. The „big two“ continue to disarm, while all, including the „small three,“ stop modernizing and upgrading. The prospect of a P5 initiative coupled with multilaterally coordinated deterrence mitigation and risk reduction would also provide a strong security incentive for China, which is already forgoing first-use, to participate.
3) How can multilateralization succeed?
A genuine multilateralization of arms control also requires a consistent multilateralization of verification. In order to build confidence within the P5, but also vis-à-vis the non-nuclear-weapon states, future transparency and verification measures of multilateral disarmament and arms control agreements should take place with the participation of states outside the P5 group and under the umbrella of the United Nations. Many non-nuclear weapon states have long called for multilateralization of the nuclear arms control architecture beyond the NPT. This is because, to date, only non-nuclear weapon states are subject to monitoring and inspection under the nonproliferation regime pursuant to safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The nuclear weapon states themselves are not subject to multilateral control, let alone verification involving non-nuclear weapon states. The P5 should take responsibility for correcting this arms control policy deficit. The clandestine design of Russian and U.S. bilateral nuclear verification weakens the overall nuclear order and also discourages nuclear weapon states outside the NPT from submitting to multilateral verification.
In context of a joint research project under the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV), Germany and France have already developed and successfully tested methods for safely verifying nuclear disarmament multilaterally with the participation of non-nuclear-weapon states, and without divulging sensitive information. Norway and the United Kingdom have similar experimental studies. RWTH Aachen University is also conducting research on innovative verification methods in which non-nuclear weapon states could participate. The U.S.-initiated CEND (Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament) initiative, which is intended to serve as a platform for dialogue among nuclear-weapon states (including non-NPT states parties India, Pakistan, and Israel), NATO members, and non-nuclear-weapon states, could be expanded to include a working group to explore and operationalize solutions for multilateral verification in light of the latest scientific knowledge. These results should be used to verify P5 disarmament and limitation agreements involving non-nuclear-weapon states. The latter could be drawn, for example, from among the rotating members of the Security Council, thus ensuring embedding in the United Nations. The multilateralization of nuclear disarmament would then not merely be a new start, but a renaissance for the entire arms control architecture and a sound comeback of the United Nations.