Michael KreponWhat Would Nuclear Peace Look Like?

Quotes of the week:

“For the first time in our lives, we can feel the disturbing vibrations of complete human readjustment. Usually the vibrations are so faint as to go unnoticed. This time, they are so strong that even the ending of a war is overshadowed.” — E.B. White, The New Yorker, 1945

“Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The Bhagavad-Gita, as recalled by J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1945

We know what nuclear war would look like. We can remind ourselves by looking at pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki reduced to radioactive rubble. Some of us even know what the moments just before nuclear war might look like because we’ve seen pictures of the contrails that nuclear warheads make overhead. They look like the contrails that passenger jets chalk against a blue sky, except that they don’t head north, south, east, or west. Instead, they arc downward toward their intended targets.

Few of us think about or can visualize what nuclear peace would look like – even those of us over forty who have experienced it. It’s hard to remember now, but leaders in Washington and Moscow created lasting conditions for nuclear peace when the Cold War ended. Then, one by one, many of these building blocks were discarded as inconvenient or unnecessary.

Now we’re heading in the direction of increased nuclear dangers, crises, and close calls. The geometry of nuclear competition is way more complex than ever before.There are four pairings of nuclear-armed rivals, and there will be more if Iran acquires the means to make nuclear weapons. We’re inundated with daily doses of threat. We feel resigned and pessimistic.

We’ve been here before. Until Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev became the most consequential odd couple in the history of arms control negotiations, U.S. and Soviet leaders didn’t have time to think about nuclear peace; it was hard enough just to stave off disaster. Major technological advances fed a nuclear arms competition that seemed endless and was initially without guardrails. Vulnerability, anxiety, and a sense of impending loss infused daily life.

And yet, we managed to avoid nuclear war. How did that happen? What are the fundamental conditions for nuclear peace that were achieved at the end of the Cold War? Why did we regress so badly? Are these conditions retrievable under different circumstances, and if so, how?

As I write in my book, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control, the conditions of nuclear peace were established when deterrence and arms control became mutually reinforcing. This was a rare conjunction, enabled when the Soviet Union was dissolving and when deterrence strategists embraced the concepts of arms control.

The alignment of deterrence with arms control was one necessary condition of nuclear peace. Another was the acceptance of vulnerability to nuclear attack by a well-armed rival. While competition continued, rivals tacitly agreed not to play with fire in especially sensitive locales. They agreed to respect the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of others. They reduced their nuclear forces in verifiable ways, reflecting improved relations.

Most crucial of all, rivals did not use nuclear weapons in warfare. They even stopped testing these “war-winning” weapons, as every test was a declaration of military utility.

These changes were so profound that when the Cold War ended, George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin agreed to the prohibition of land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads – missiles that conveyed war-fighting purposes and that were the basis of worst-case thinking about Soviet motives during the Cold War.

Irony abounds. At the very apogee of success for arms control, conditions moved into place for its demise. Bipartisanship waned. Parity between the Washington and Moscow – one of the bases for treaty making – became fictional. After 9/11, the United States could no longer accept vulnerability as a central strategic concept. And respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity took a battering when Vladimir Putin pushed back against the prospective inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO.

The first treaties were jettisoned by Putin and George W. Bush. Putin began by disregarding a treaty mandating deep cuts in conventional forces because it constrained his freedom of action. Bush withdrew from the treaty prohibiting national missile defenses and, as Putin warned, Russia then withdrew from the treaty banning land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads. The unraveling process accelerated along with NATO expansion, most egregiously when, in 2007, Russia began to flight test a missile prohibited by the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Dangerous military practices have been on the upswing ever since, in Ukraine, the Taiwan Strait, and along disputed borders between China and India and between India and Pakistan. Warning lights are flashing, and diplomacy is in the doldrums. What to do?

The first thing to do is to remember how we survived nuclear dangers in the past. We survived because national leaders recognized that stand-alone deterrence was too dangerous, and that arms control was needed for reassurance and to help prevent worse cases.

We’re not starting from scratch. The crucial norms of no use in warfare and no testing remain in place. National vulnerability against a nuclear-armed rival remains inescapable, no matter how much money is spent to deny this reality.

Arms control will be revived because our lives depend on it. National leaders will reach this conclusion after a severe crisis, or perhaps worse. But what form will arms control now take? It will be less formal, and there will be more seats at the table. The top-most priorities at present are strengthening norms, devising codes of conduct, and seeking to reduce dangerous military, space and cyber practices. Numbers will have to be dealt with, but the lengthening and strengthening of norms cannot wait.

A new multilateral forum devoted solely to norm building might usefully be created – a forum where all nuclear-armed rivals have a seat at the table along with Britain and France. And given the speed and scope of Chinese nuclear force buildups, it’s time to do our homework about trilateral negotiations dealing with numbers.

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