Michael KreponArms Control Between Nuclear-Armed Rivals

Quote of the week:

“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” — Winston Churchill

The year begins with the sound of distant, rolling thunder. Dire warnings abound. Troops cross borders, sometimes invited, sometimes not. Offensive capabilities, conventional and nuclear, are sharpened.

We barely survived one nuclear-armed rivalry during the Cold War. Now there are four, each presenting multiple pathways leading to tight corners. There will be five if or when Iran’s new leadership possesses highly enriched fissile material and the wherewithal to make nuclear warheads. Another outlier, North Korea, repeatedly calls attention to its nuclear weapons and their means of delivery.

The global nuclear “order” accommodates incremental adjustments. Four states in Asia are increasing their warhead totals, none more purposefully than China. Sterner challenges could lie ahead. The greatest threat to nuclear order arises when major powers are dissatisfied with the status quo. The two primary threats to nuclear order are therefore posed by China and Russia.

Can nuclear-armed rivals do arms control? Absolutely. U.S.-Soviet experience during the Cold War proved that. But only if rivals do not seek to change the status quo in sensitive locales by force of arms.

At the end of the Cold War, dangerous military practices had virtually ended, marked by agreements between Moscow and Washington to avoid incidents at sea and provocative actions by ground forces and air forces operating in close proximity.

These guidelines suited Moscow when the Kremlin was satisfied with the status quo, but no more. Moscow threatens to make further inroads on Ukraine’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty while Beijing is flexing its power across the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea.

To complicate matters further, dangerous military practices have become a hallmark of all four nuclear rivalries. Clashes over disputed borders between China and India and between India and Pakistan begin where the last ones have left off. Upping the ante seems to be the new norm. Previous concerns over disorder prompted by nuclear terrorism, much hyped post-9/11, now seem quite modest compared to contemporary challenges.

At times like these, it’s worth remembering that pundits widely presumed nuclear war to be inevitable after 1945. Predictions of nuclear use didn’t subside until the second Reagan administration and made a comeback after Donald Trump’s election. More recently, some savants have predicted space warfare to be inevitable. Ditto for cyber warfare that produces massive damage.

All of this remains possible, but worst-case predictions do not have a good track record. Warfare isn’t inevitable as long as the human factor weighs heavily on national leaders operating with little sleep in deep crisis. The human factor, at least in the business of arms control, can be defined as determination to avoid Armageddon.

The nuclear revolution predicted by the late, great Robert Jervis and others has been only partially realized and acknowledged. So far, deterrence has helped prevent worst cases. Even in extremis, national leaders have chosen not to cross the nuclear threshold. But the twin impulses that drive deterrence — seeking advantage and seeking to avoid disadvantage – remain with us.

The nuclear revolution hasn’t stopped geopolitical competition. Jervis never claimed this. As before, the twin impulses driving nuclear deterrence continue to add increments to offensive capabilities. Since one increment leads to the next, rivals do not feel more secure as a result. Washington and Moscow — the only rival pair now operating under bilateral treaty constraints — have settled on numbers, but both still seek incremental gains and seek to avoid incremental losses.

Deterrence has always been and continues to be a far weaker reed than its backers acknowledge. (Declaratory policy is even weaker.) Deterrence fails repeatedly in lesser cases, and failures in lesser cases have built-in escalatory dynamics. Adding increments of deterrence does not make flash points more amenable to resolution. For this, diplomacy is needed, but diplomacy is in short supply for every nuclear rivalry.

Diplomacy faces long odds against states intent on changing the status quo by force of arms. If a state is hell bent on risk taking, diplomacy will fail. Diplomacy can only succeed if leaders acknowledge that changing the status quo by the use of force entails great risks and that risk taking could result in failure far beyond expected gain.

The diplomacy of arms control found the space to succeed when, after intense crises over Berlin and Cuba, superpower rivals tacitly agreed not to play with fire in sensitive locales and not to change the status quo by force of arms.

Small successes led to astounding successes as the Cold War came to a close. This success story not only avoided mushroom clouds, but also established conditions for nuclear peace when the Cold War ended — a wildly improbable result. Deterrence was the backdrop to this success; arms control provided the instrumentalities for its realization.

Alas, this is not the end of the story.  After the Cold War ended, George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump deemed many of the key elements of nuclear peace to be dated, unnecessary, and inconvenient.

The tasks now before us, like the challenges that previous generations tackled, are to rebuild guardrails against the use of nuclear weapons and to reduce nuclear dangers. We can find our footing by refreshing some of the techniques of arms control — but only if rivals avoid direct challenges to each other’s core interests and are willing to reduce nuclear dangers through practical, observable measures.

If leaders seek to avoid war, added increments of diplomacy, unlike added increments of nuclear deterrence, can move rivals away from the nuclear precipice. Diplomacy remains far more cost effective than spending large sums for nuclear deterrence, but diplomacy is habitually short changed. In three of the four nuclear rivalries, it barely has a pulse.

Treaties are the most notable and hardest-to-achieve instruments of diplomacy designed to reduce nuclear dangers. Some treaties, bilateral and multilateral, remain in effect, but new U.S.-Russia treaties are presently beyond reach. New treaty making related to the other three rival pairs is an even more distant prospect.

Where does this leave us? Protection against catastrophe cannot safely rest on deterrence alone. The words “safety” and “plans for the employment of nuclear weapons” do not belong in the same sentence. Nor can safety rest solely on treaties, declaratory policies, and defense budget allocations.

The primary mechanisms for controlling and reducing nuclear dangers in current circumstances are low profile, but crucial diplomatic instruments – instruments that have a track record of success in preventing mushroom clouds, whether as supplements to treaties, or despite their absence.

I’m referring, of course, to norms and to a wide panoply of confidence, security-building, and nuclear risk-reduction measures. These practical remedies are well known; they are generically applicable to all four pairs of nuclear-armed rivals. Nuclear-armed rivals that wish to avoid mushroom clouds can find common cause in reducing nuclear danger. But not when leaders believe that extreme risk taking is either unavoidable or can succeed.

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