Michael KreponTreaties, Numbers and Norms

Quote of the week:

“An ounce of practice is worth a thousand words.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Let’s face it: we arms controllers are attached to the written and spoken word. Last week’s post dealt with the words used to declare intention regarding the use of nuclear weapons. This week is about the written word.

Treaties are our crown jewels. John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev proved that it was possible for ideological and geopolitical rivals to agree to reduce nuclear danger. The 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty stopped atmospheric testing, addressed a growing public health hazard and pointed the way toward the goal of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The 1972 ABM Treaty was a great success while it lasted, enabling deep reductions in strategic forces. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Cold War nuclear competition with the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. The INF Treaty mandated on-site inspections at sensitive nuclear facilities, paving the way for deep cuts in strategic forces. Multilateral treaties codified norms against nuclear proliferation as well as the possession and use of chemical and biological weapons.

We arms controllers are also attached to numbers. We equate success with lower numbers. The worth of multilateral treaties governing nuclear nonproliferation and the abolition of chemical and biological weapons is typically measured by how few leaders disregard their provisions. There will always be outliers, of course, but their number would be far greater without these multilateral compacts.

Numbers have also become our yardstick of success for treaties governing strategic arms. Initially, the U.S.-Soviet nuclear competition was so vigorous that arms control agreements could do no better than to cap numbers at high levels. While these negotiations did not result in treaties that entered into force, they paved the way for compacts mandating deep reductions in Cold War excess, thanks to the efforts of Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.

George W. Bush cut numbers even further, but he also walked away from the ABM Treaty. In so doing, he effectively set a floor for reductions that essentially continues to this day. His successor, Barack Obama, wanted to cut deeper, but Vladimir Putin didn’t. As promising U.S. missile defense interceptor programs are flight tested and as China’s deployed forces grow, resistance to deeper cuts will also grow among deterrence strengtheners in both Moscow and Washington.

In their seminal text, Strategy and Arms Control, Tom Schelling and Mort Halperin were agnostic about numbers. They wrote that some might be increased, while others might warrant reductions, depending on whether they helped to stabilize the strategic competition. The main purposes of arms control, they wrote, were to open channels of communications, avoid dangerous miscalculations, and to create an ethos of cooperation in this sphere of competition.

Later on, Schelling lost patience with arms control’s obsession with numbers; this was, in his view, as misguided as mimicking dangerous Soviet practices. What set him off was the Pentagon’s hapless search for a mobile basing mode for the M-X/Peacekeeper missile to offset Soviet missile and throw-weight advantages, when the sensible thing to do was to downsize land-based missiles and deploy more of the U.S. deterrent at sea.

The greatest accomplishment of arms control was not embedded in a treaty and wasn’t dictated by a number. No treaty signed by Washington and Moscow expressly prohibited the use of nuclear weapons. And yet not crossing the nuclear threshold was the subtext of every negotiation and every agreement.

The process of negotiating agreed limitations and then reductions of nuclear forces served to set nuclear weapons apart from other instruments of warfare. The ban on nuclear testing did, as well. Conventional weapons are regularly tested; nuclear weapons haven’t been tested for over two decades – with one exception. (That’s what an outlier does.) Missiles that carry nuclear weapons are periodically tested; that suffices for purposes of deterrence and message sending.

Lower numbers and new treaties have become harder to achieve because the global geometry of nuclear competition has become more complex. There are now no less than four (U.S.-Russia, U.S.-China, China-India, India-Pakistan) nuclear-armed rivalries. All of these rivalries are embedded in two (U.S.-Russia-China and China-India-Pakistan) inter-connected triangular competitions.

Crises lie ahead because every rivalry is becoming more intense and because bilateral diplomacy is in the doldrums everywhere. Because serious crises lie ahead, and because these crises are not amenable to resolution by treaties and numbers, it makes sense to focus on norms. We can succeed at reducing nuclear danger by extending key norms even when a treaty- and numbers-centric approach to arms control faces serious obstacles.

The most critical norm is no battlefield use of nuclear weapons, which is now three-quarters-of-a-century old. The norm of not testing nuclear weapons reinforces the norm of no use.

To be sure, treaties still matter greatly. Tearing down treaties does not help to build back better. New START’s five-year extension gives Washington and Moscow time to update its provisions and to work on more inclusive approaches. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has not entered into force, but it remains a crucial bulwark stigmatizing the use of nuclear weapons.

Numbers also matter greatly. Numbers are an important indicator of the extent of nuclear danger. Increases in numbers are not a good sign, as they reflect intensified rivalry. Greater numbers usually make rivalries less rather than more stable.

Norms matter more than treaties and numbers at present because of the complexity of nuclear competition. Among the four rivalries, only the U.S.-Russian case lends itself to bilateral and numbers-based treaties. Treaties often fall by the wayside, however, when geopolitical circumstances change. To make matters worse, the history of deterrence is pockmarked with failures. When treaties are cast aside and when deterrence breaks down, the norm of non use is the last barrier standing between us and mushroom clouds.

In addition to the norms of no use and no testing, the norm of nonproliferation also remains absolutely crucial. The Nonproliferation Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention continue to be central to norm maintenance. Without these norms, there are no norm breakers.

As hard as it seems to believe and despite arguments to the contrary, the nonproliferation norm has taken hold — even as four nations in Asia increase their holdings of nuclear weapons. It has been over two decades since a new state has acquired nuclear weapons. Iran seems poised at this threshold but is unlikely to cross it, whether because Tehran assesses that it will not become safer as a result, or because of successful diplomacy or military strikes.

The norm of nonproliferation requires daily reinforcement. The norms of not possessing or using chemical and biological weapons are also in need of reinforcement. Here too, outliers are limited in number. Only three living national leaders have authorized the use of chemical weapons against defenseless civilians and as tools of assassination. Who wants to join a club of outliers that has Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong Un, and Vladimir Putin as members?

Another practical reason to focus on norms is that the geometry of global nuclear competition and domestic divisions in the United States are not conducive to new treaty making. Even so, nuclear excess in U.S. and Russian forces and stockpiles can be further reduced by means of parallel, verifiable actions. The dismantling of excess warheads can certainly continue whether or not Putin resists deeper cuts in deployed forces.

Nuclear weapons are fine for deterrence but terrible for war fighting. Spending exorbitant sums on weapons that national leaders dare not use isn’t wise. Spending money on non-nuclear capabilities that can deter and influence the outcome of crises and clashes makes far more sense. Deterrence can also be enhanced by unilateral steps, including a reconfiguration of the Triad along the lines that Schelling argued for decades ago.

The global geometry of nuclear competition doesn’t lend itself to a numbers-based multilateral approach because rivals won’t agree to hierarchy. For this reason alone, the Trump administration’s attempt to count U.S., Russian and Chinese warheads was bound to fail in bringing China on board. This initiative didn’t even seek to reduce nuclear danger; it was merely a counting exercise.

Unlike numbers, norms aren’t about hierarchies; they apply to everyone. A norms-based approach has utility for every nuclear-armed rivalry. It’s also the most economical way to expend limited U.S. diplomatic capital to reduce nuclear dangers rising on multiple fronts.

The most promising way to draw Beijing into useful conversations about reducing nuclear danger is through norms, not numbers. What’s the best forum to do so? The Committee on Disarmament in Geneva is moribund. The old model of P-5 discussions is redolent of the Cold War and doesn’t fit the geometry of nuclear competition. Two of the Five – Great Britain and France – would bring savvy and helpful ideas to any diplomatic forum. They do not, however, have pressing disputes and their nuclear forces pose a threat to no one. Moreover, P-5 discussions have accomplished little since the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995.

We can be more creative than this. Three-party talks involving Washington, Moscow and Beijing are both hard to arrange and insufficient to the tasks at hand. Progress might paradoxically become easier by expanding the scope of the conversation. Of all the nuclear rivalries, those in Asia are the most volatile. Clashes along disputed borders are heating up between India and Pakistan and between China and India.

In any serious discussion about reducing nuclear danger, India and Pakistan belong at the table along with the United States, China and Russia. I’d include Great Britain and France – making seven parties in all – for the reasons mentioned above. I’d exclude Israel and North Korea because adding them is likely to increase complications even more. One necessary ground rule for multilateral talks on strengthening norms would be a prohibition on raising bilateral disputes.

Would China participate in a forum devoted to norms promoting responsible nuclear stewardship? If framed in this way, it would be hard for Beijing to say no. Pakistan and India are likely to find value in having seats at this high table. France and Great Britain could help steer useful outcomes, and the United States and Russia could find common ground in this forum, in part to offset bilateral tensions that are likely to intensify.

The heart of the matter is extending and reaffirming norms against the use of nuclear weapons, testing, and nonproliferation. Part and parcel of norm building for every nuclear-armed rival is reaffirmation of the canonical pledge by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Agreements between Washington and Moscow to prevent dangerous military practices at sea, in the air, and for ground forces operating in close proximity are also in need of reaffirmation. These measures could have applicability for all nuclear-armed rivals. A side benefit to multilateral talks on norm building could be the resumption of meaningful bilateral conversations on confidence-building measures between China and India and between India and Pakistan.

Every rivalry has its own distinct features, but all are in need of mechanisms to dampen down nuclear danger in the crises to come. No rival wishes to be the first to use nuclear weapons after more than seven decades of non-battlefield use – regardless of declarations or hints of first use. All could benefit from norm-setting and strengthening measures that reaffirm responsible possession of nuclear weapons.

Progress is possible on this agenda if we are creative enough to pursue it. Another side benefit to doing so is that the more we succeed in extending key norms, the more we will be able to reduce numbers, with or without treaties.


  1. John Borrie (History)

    Hi Michael

    As always, I found your column stimulating and interesting. I count myself a regular reader! I think the idea of a meeting of seven nuclear-armed States is an intriguing one. In a future column, could you expand further on your proposal for reaffirmation by Washington and Moscow to prevent dangerous practices? Should these be developed further at all? For instance, should it be extended to activities in space that endanger others’ space assets used in NC3I? And, if so, would that provide a template for eventually bringing in other powers with an interest (e.g. China, India)?


    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Appreciate your readership. Hope you are well.
      I will circle back to codes of conduct for nuclear-armed rivalries in another post.
      The Stimson Center first advanced the idea of a space code of conduct in the early 1990s. A few of us tried to convince the Obama administration to take this on, but we didn’t succeed. It wasn’t a high enough priority. Now the Space Code of Conduct is more important than ever. I personally believe exploratory talks with Washington, Moscow and Beijing is the way to start. If these three are at loggerheads, nothing will come of this initiative. If, however, there is enough common ground to make a strong effort in a larger grouping of states, then we’re in business. As for a forum, you would know better than I. My sense is that we’d certainly want to have more than seven countries represented around the table, but less than 65, the current roster in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Perhaps the UN Group of Governmental Experts approach deserves a closer look.
      Best wishes,

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