There are arms control experts and strategists both in the United States and Russia, but lately they have been overshadowed by political agendas and mutual paranoia. It is time to bring them back to the fore.
Nuclear weapons have played an ambivalent role since the mid-twentieth century, when nuclear parity was achieved. While they are the worst means of destruction ever invented, they do offer an effective means of deterrence based on the fear of mutual annihilation. The Cold War, especially after the Cuban missile crisis, was marked by unprecedented structural stability precisely because the opposing parties recognized the fatality of a head-on conflict. And so they set about developing rules for safe coexistence.
The year 2021 could draw an end to that era, and leave the world not only without mutual trust between nuclear superpowers (though it has long been undermined) but also without the last remaining rules that regulate their behavior. Or it could see the development a new model in place of the old one that worked well but no longer does. Moscow and Washington remain the primary stakeholders in the enterprise of international strategic stability, and how this relationship develops further depends entirely on them, not on the increasing number of minority stakeholders.
The minimum necessary condition is the extension of the New START treaty, which is set to expire on February 5, 2021. This is easy to do, just by confirming mutual commitments. (In Russia, the procedure is more complicated, but should not be an obstacle.) Extending the treaty would be largely symbolic, but would set the groundwork for future progress.
As in the 1960s, intensive efforts will be needed from scientists, theorists, and intellectuals. They will have to work out a new model of strategic stability for an entirely different international environment, which includes new weapons, cyberspace, and a growing number of nuclear powers (contrary to the principles of nonproliferation).
There is much less trust between the two countries than even during the early 1960s. The reasons for this lie in the post–Cold War period, when the previous military and political balance disappeared and the two sides held rapidly diverging views on how the new world order should look. Those grievances cannot be ignored or withdrawn. But restoring at least basic trust will require professionals to put aside current political circumstances and focus on future security guarantees. There are arms control experts and strategists both in the United States and Russia, but lately they have been overshadowed by political agendas and mutual paranoia. It is time to bring them back to the fore.
Read more: Council on Foreign Relations
Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.