Reports of the Death of Arms Control Have Been Greatly Exaggerated


Some argue that the spread of [nuclear] weapons cannot be stopped, cannot be checked … Such fatalism is a deadly adversary.
-President Barack Obama, Prague Speech, April 5, 2009

The deliberate or accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon could set off a literal and figurative chain reaction that could end the world as we know it. Yet today, a renewed full-scale arms race is no longer an implausible scenario. Nuclear weapons are still being built, modernized, and stockpiled around the world. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran is on life support. Possible negotiations over the North Korean nuclear program are stalled. U.S.-Russian strategic relations are at the lowest point in a generation. At the same time, a spate of new weapons technologies, both advanced conventional and nuclear, threatens to complicate matters further.

Amid these developments, warnings abound from nuclear policy experts and government officials that the entire span of treaties that currently reduce nuclear risks are in danger of collapse. Indeed, fatalism is taking over and the statement that arms control is dead is becoming commonplace.

Fortunately, the reports of the death of nuclear arms control are not only premature, they seem to miss the point. Arms control has been used to varying degrees of success for over 50 years. Even during the darkest days of the Cold War, Americans and Russians managed to continue strategic stability discussions (the late 1960s and the mid-1980s being good examples). Leaders in Washington and Moscow knew they had no other choice and understood the magnitude of what was at stake. That sober wisdom seems lost on today’s leaders, who have spent far more time on dangerous posturing and rhetoric than on productive discussions.

To be sure, previous methods of arms control, such as the intensive verification and counting systems of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), might be less relevant today for some issues, but what is needed is an updated approach to arms control that accounts for today’s emerging technologies and threats, not a rejection of the concept entirely. Where many in the old guard of arms control experts see a dead end, we see an opportunity to reinvigorate the concept and tailor it to modern challenges. Arms control is a tool and it is adaptable, flexible, and resilient. New, successful arms control agreements will require new thinking, new frameworks and without a doubt, new people.

To begin, it is important to look at how the global security environment is being reshaped by emerging technologies such as drones, precision strike weapons, hypersonic weapons, improved ballistic missile defenses, lethal autonomous systems, and artificial intelligence. All of these technologies have the potential to undermine decades of nuclear orthodoxy – that is, the rules of the nuclear game based on the condition of mutually assured destruction and deterrence through punishment that have endured since the earliest days of the Cold War. Expertise on nuclear deterrence is not a requirement to see the danger of nuclear weapons that can be delivered without human control.

Policymakers must also consider the potential impact of new domains of military conflict, such as cyber space and outer space, on the nuclear order, as well as the relationship between nuclear and advanced conventional weapons and offensive and defensive systems. These challenges will not and cannot be ignored. New technologies could re-introduce the temptation of disarming first strikes and arms racing. Without dialogue, these advances will muddy the nuclear information space, increasing fear and uncertainty in nuclear relations.

The good news is that we have the ability to get ahead of this trend and manage the threats before they fully materialize. Governments can actually prevent potential nuclear crises before they start. Indeed, given that arms control efforts related to nuclear reduction are currently stalled, perhaps the time has come for pre-emptive arms control.

The work could begin among the P5 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China) and focus on common concerns about emerging technologies and their relationship to nuclear weapons. Conversations can then shift to points of agreement on dangers that can be avoided altogether. For example, it is hard to imagine any state objecting to the assertion that cyber attacks against their nuclear command and control systems are a bad idea, given the possibility of causing accidental or unauthorized nuclear use. By starting from a point of mutual agreement, countries can build a framework of norms and confidence-building measures. That progress, in turn, can be used to create space for discussions on more concrete understandings and binding agreements that would limit, control, or monitor new technologies.

Beyond expanding the scope of work, new arms control agreements will require thinking outside the box. Old methods of monitoring, verification, and symmetry may no longer match the realities of today’s world, especially in the far less tangible realms of cyberspace or artificial intelligence. U.S. START inspectors used to ski around Russian facilities looking for anomalies. You cannot exactly ski around the entire internet. With all the capabilities the modern digital age affords, the potential for neutral, but intrusive, verification technology is unprecedented. All countries should be supporting initiatives like the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (a group of 25 nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states working to identify potential procedures and technologies to address the challenges associated with nuclear disarmament) and encouraging academics and the private sector to aid in these efforts.

It is the height of hubris to think that we have exhausted our ability to achieve verifiable arms control agreements simply because the traditional ways no longer seem viable. It is also shortsighted to dismiss initiatives that focus more on norm development, such as non-binding commitments to refrain from testing or specific targeting plans or from declaratory policies (No First Use or Sole Purpose). Furthermore, it is also worth reviewing asymmetric bargains in which countries agree on certain ratios between particular weapons systems, or agreements that simply dictate a ceiling on weapons whether nuclear or non-nuclear, offensive or defensive, strategic or tactical. For example, countries could collectively agree to an overall number of certain delivery vehicles, but leave specifics up to individual parties.

The third necessary task for the reinvigoration of arms control is the integration of fresh thinking. Ideally these new perspectives would come from those who entered the field at the end of or after the Cold War. People who had no role in creating the current nuclear infrastructure or who have not been burned by previous unsuccessful negotiations are less attached to the status quo. They have yet to develop bad relationships with their counterparts which have often derailed derail negotiations. New thinkers are also less burdened by longstanding ideas about insurmountable challenges, like agreements on ballistic missile defense or non-strategic nuclear weapons. Younger people are also more likely to be comfortable talking about and dealing with the new technological environment.

In addition to including new voices, it is also time to foster new inter-personal relations across both generational and geographical divides. No matter what, young people will inherit a global nuclear arsenal of 15,000+ weapons and they need to learn from and interact with established experts. Such connections may well act as a confidence-building measure and help to generate new ideas. In the longer run, these efforts could even serve as the driver of a more institutionalized multinational community for sharing nuclear knowledge.

It took decades to put together the nuclear arms control structures of the Cold War, and no matter the focus, we should not assume that the next generation of arms control agreements will be created quickly or easily. But we are not doomed to repeat the expensive and destabilizing arms competition of the Cold War. We can we find new ways to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. The people who say arms control is dead largely fall into two categories: those who have never supported arms control and those who have simply run out of ideas or energy. When it comes to the 21st century’s unique nuclear challenges, the answer is not to abandon arms control, but to allow a new generation of thinkers to have a go.


Alexandra Bell is the senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, DC. Dr. Andrew Futter is an associate professor of international politics at the University of Leicester, United Kingdom.

Image: Robert L. Knudsen , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons