The Buzz

RIP Nuclear Disarmament?

There’s an unfortunate truth about nuclear disarmament: it’s further away now than it was in 1995 when the NPT was indefinitely extended. NPT extension capped a number of positive milestones, not least the end of the Cold War. Things have soured over the past 20 years. They’ve even soured over the last six, so disarmament’s also further away now than it was in 2009, when President Obama spoke so warmly in Prague about the objective. And that suggests the tide’s going out on nuclear disarmament, not coming in. If so, should we be lowering our expectations in the arms control field to something a little more achievable, namely a safe, secure and resilient nuclear order?

What determines whether a nuclear order’s resilient or not? We don’t have a large number of such orders to investigate empirically, so this post is intended to unpack four factors which I believe determine resiliency: geopolitical settings, technologies, actors and norms.

Geopolitically, the world’s turbulent. Great power tensions are rising, not receding. They’re indisputably rising between the U.S. and Russia, but I think they’re also rising between the great powers of Asia. That might yet have implications for how nuclear weapons are seen in Asia: previously they’ve been seen primarily as a sub-regional problem (for Northeast Asia and South Asia). Moreover, there’s a worrying dynamism about conventional force relativities. Not too many years ago, it was a standard Western argument in favor of nuclear disarmament that the U.S. was preeminent at the conventional force level. Now that’s less certain, and the case for disarmament seems to have a stronger humanitarian flavor. And, finally, the Asian security system seems to be moving from a US-centred one towards a condition of loose balancing, which is making it more difficult for Washington to assure its partners and allies. In short, geopolitical turbulence seems to be driving a reprioritization of nuclear weapons and strategies.

Technologically, nuclear arsenals are experiencing a wave of innovation. Especially in Asia, we’re seeing the emergence of MIRVed and MARVed ballistic missiles, and mobile and sea-launched missiles. Precision-strike conventional weapons and gradually improving ballistic missile defenses complicate the picture. There are opportunities for arms control in that technological space, not least because one innovation can sometimes be traded off for another, but a high technological churn factor—added to existing historical asymmetries—also makes broad agreements difficult.

By contrast, the actors in the nuclear world are changing only slowly. There are more of them than you might think, though. If we’re looking for states whose security policies are entangled with nuclear weapons, that’s not just the nine nuclear weapon states. It also includes potentially ‘repentant’ states among the NPT signatories—like Iran—plus the nearly 40 states who benefit from extended nuclear assurance relationships with the U.S. Sub-state actors might eventually join that list, but—thankfully—haven’t so far. Still, the list of nuclear ‘actors’ is typically worrisome for two reasons: number and identity. In recent decades, we’ve seen the actual nuclear club become less exclusive, and that trend looks likely to continue.

And, finally, I think nuclear norms are changing slowest of all. Those norms suggest that direct use of nuclear weapons should be an option of last resort, that nuclear weapons require special efforts to ensure their safety and security, and that possession of nuclear weapons is an abnormal rather than a normal feature of statehood (unlike passports and national airlines). All seem comparatively durable, bringing a degree of ballast to the nuclear order.

So what’s the key challenge? It seems to me that the pace of strategic change and technological innovation are the two factors powering the Bunsen burner under the current nuclear order. The actors and norms are a little more settled—sources of ballast among the turbulence. True, a less settled strategic environment might well constitute an important driver towards nuclear proliferation, especially if US allies start to worry about the credibility of U.S. assurances in a less U.S.-centered world, so we can’t be complacent about actors. But if we’re aiming for a safe and secure nuclear order for the foreseeable future, we need to grapple principally with shifting strategic relativities and technological developments.

The problem, of course, is that those factors aren’t easily tamed. We can and should work the problem of great-power relationships, both within Asia and beyond. And we might be able to add more transparency to force balances and technological innovation, but attempts to do so are scarcely novel. Finally, we need to revisit existing crisis stability arrangements, accepting that a riskier world lies before us and building structures and arrangements we can use when things go awry. None of those approaches will bring nuclear disarmament much closer, I’m afraid. But they just might help us navigate some turbulent waters.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here