For several years, serious experts in Russia and the West have repeatedly warned the public about the threat of the collapse of the international nuclear arms control system. They spoke about the system, to be precise, because in the past half a century arms control developed as a sum-total of supplementary elements rather than an eclectic set of separate unrelated bilateral or multilateral agreements.
The first serious blow was dealt to this system when the United States withdrew from the Soviet-US ABM Treaty in 2002. However, the system withstood the first blow largely owing to the then general positive dynamics of Russia-US political cooperation. Meanwhile, judging by everything, the collapse of the INF Treaty 17 years later may prove fatal to the system because it coincided with a highly acute political crisis in relations between Moscow and Washington.
The next link in the chain of disintegration is the bilateral START III Treaty. Mutual accusations about the failure to abide by this treaty – at least in terms of its spirit if not the letter – are becoming increasingly loud both in Russia and the US as are statements that the national security of either side will be guaranteed even if the extension of the treaty is renounced.
As experts have warned, it is impossible to abandon the bilateral Russia-US dimension of nuclear arms control while leaving its multilateral dimension intact. The energy of disintegration is bound to spill over the framework of bilateral relations and this is already happening before our eyes. Washington has launched a campaign accusing Moscow of conducting secret nuclear weapons tests. Thus, the future of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that has been signed but not ratified by the US up to now is called into question. It is perfectly obvious that if the nuclear arms race accelerates with the production of new types of warheads, those who insist on tests will exert more pressure on the public.
The ultimate destruction of NPT would be the final nail in the coffin for nuclear arms control. Its Article VI notes the “obligation of nuclear-weapon States to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament.” But to what extent can nuclear disarmament be discussed today at all? At a meeting on the preparations for the NPT Review Conference early this year, the Nuclear Five even refused to sign a final joint declaration. The 2015 Review Conference was already a big disappointment for nuclear disarmament advocates and the 2020 Review Conference may turn out to be the final event in this format. In this way, the NPT will follow in the wake of the CTBT, START III, INF and ABM treaties on the road to the dustbin of history that is growing every year.
For a long time, sober-minded experts did not want to believe in even the hypothetical possibility of the death of arms control. Both in Russia and the West they proceeded from the premise that “this cannot be because this can never be.” Hence, they focused on preserving the nuclear status quo that took shape in broad outline in the past century. How to drive the nuclear genie back into the bottle? How to stop the chain reaction of disintegration? Where is it possible to hold defenses against the coming nuclear chaos?
Today, the prospect of a world without nuclear arms control is too realistic to be ignored. All of us are facing a different set of questions. How to live in the world without the old nuclear arms agreements? How to minimize the risks and reduce the costs of a new arms race? On what terms and in what format is it possible to revive international arms control?
For the time being, the tone of the emerging discussion is determined by extravagant ideas that sooner testify to the intellectually uninhibited style of their authors than to their sense of responsibility. Some claim that a nuclear war is not so horrible after all and that nuclear weapons do not differ in principle from conventional arms. Others say that to revive nuclear arms control the human race needs to go through a disaster comparable to the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
The calls for an immediate transition to a multilateral model of nuclear arms control are not very impressive, either. Needless to say, hardly anyone would object to this idea in principle. But given the current state of political relations between the Nuclear Five, hardly anyone will take these appeals seriously. And even if the sides had the political will for this, it would most probably take several decades to form justified, stable, verifiable and legally binding mechanisms of multilateral nuclear deterrence. Can we afford to wait for decades?
Without claiming to have any mystical knowledge on life after the death of arms control, I would like to offer several rules that could make our life a bit less dangerous and more comfortable for everyone.
First, peace is more important than disarmament. For all the importance of limiting and reducing nuclear arms, the priority task for all should be to prevent a nuclear war. This means that even given the absence of an adequate international legal foundation for strategic stability, this stability can and should be improved with the help of the instruments at our common disposal. For example, it can be achieved through contacts between our military, politicians and experts at different levels, parallel reduction of the combat readiness of nuclear carriers, mutual deterrence in deploying new systems (this is especially important in view of the collapse of the INF Treaty), and exchange of information on the evolution of military doctrines and plans for military development.
Second, quality is more dangerous than quantity. In all probability, Russia and the US have approached the limits of the quantitative arms race – none of them plans to sharply increase the number of warheads or means of their delivery.
In the meantime though, the technological race has just begun. For the time being, there is still an opportunity to promptly shut down its most dangerous areas linked with artificial intelligence, space militarization and the development of lethal arms autonomous systems, to name a few. Obviously, this task will require completely different formats of arms control whereby informal norms and codes of conduct may mean more than formalized agreements, and the role of the private sector and the civil society will not be inferior to that of states.
Third, threats posed by non-government players will increasingly outweigh the dangers from opposing states. No matter what attitude the world may have to the nuclear-missile program of North Korea or the possible development of nuclear arms by the Islamic Republic of Iran, a common logic of deterrence can be applied in both cases. This logic cannot be applied to international terrorist organizations in principle. In the meantime, such organizations will be increasingly likely to acquire nuclear arms. There will also be an increasing number of “failed states” and they are a breeding ground for international terrorism. Therefore, the prevention of nuclear terrorism (and terrorism with the use of any other weapons of mass destruction) should be a top priority in the future mechanisms of international arms control.