How to Avoid Nuclear War

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Arms control has become passéRussian and U.S. leaders have cast aside treaties as inconvenient to their pursuit of freedom of action. Republican presidents produced great arms control achievements. At present, most Republican senators and aspirants for higher office denigrate arms control and treaty-making as a failed, unnecessary, and unwise pursuit. Arms control provided necessary guardrails in the past. Now, dangerous military practices are on the rise, especially in Ukraine and across the Taiwan Strait. U.S.-Chinese relations are trending toward crisis. Four nuclear-armed states in Asia — China, Pakistan, India, and North Korea — are increasing their nuclear arsenals. Every nuclear-armed competitor is relying increasingly on deterrence as the diplomacy of arms control is in the doldrums. If unaltered, these trend lines point toward tragedy.

Many have forgotten what is crucial to remember: Deterrence is dangerous by design and has a track record of failure in lesser cases. There have already been two border wars between nuclear-armed rivals — the Soviet Union and China in 1969 and India and Pakistan in 1999. India and China as well as India and Pakistan clash along disputed borders. As rivals sharpen deterrence, they move toward the next crisis. Deterrence has always needed diplomacy and arms control to avoid nuclear tragedy.



Deterrence resulted in five-digit-sized U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals. Diplomacy reduced superpower holdings by 85 percent. The dictates of deterrence led to almost 2,000 nuclear tests, including over 400 in the atmosphere. Diplomacy produced treaties limiting and then prohibiting nuclear testing. Deterrence generated dangerous military practices like maintaining nuclear weapon delivery vehicles on a high state of alert. Diplomacy produced guardrails, codes of conduct, and rules of the road.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, deterrence didn’t provide safeguards against “loose nukes” and “dirty” bombs. The diplomacy of arms control did. Diplomacy also produced treaties curbing nuclear proliferation as well as prohibiting chemical and biological weapons. No hard problem is ever solved in perpetuity by either diplomacy or deterrence. Outliers and norm breakers still exist. Without norms, however, there are no norm breakers. The diplomacy of arms control has kept their number small. Deterrence didn’t establish protective norms. The diplomacy of arms control did.

National leaders will again seek arms control in its varied forms for the same reasons as their predecessors. They will reach the conclusion that strengthening measures for deterrence increase nuclear dangers, and that diplomacy is required to reduce them. It might take a major crisis — or something worse — for U.S., Chinese, and Russian leaders to turn to diplomacy the way that John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev did after the Cuban missile crisis. The remarkable journey Ronald Reagan undertook with Mikhail Gorbachev began with Reagan’s realization after the annus horribilis of 1983 — a year of multiple shocks to U.S.-Soviet relations — that a paranoid Kremlin leadership believed that Armageddon was approaching. Eventually — and sooner is far better than later — nuclear-armed rivals will arrive at the same conclusions that Kennedy, Khrushchev, Reagan, Gorbachev, and other leaders before them: Nuclear war has to be avoided, and deterrence by itself is, at best, half the solution. Deterrence needs help that only diplomacy and arms control can provide.

A new construction project for nuclear arms control will borrow from the past, but it will take different shape than during the Cold War because the geometry of nuclear competition is far more complicated. The measures of reassurance leaders choose to pursue alongside deterrence will be adapted to suit domestic political purposes and geopolitical realities.

Whenever chastened or forward-looking leaders of nuclear-armed states turn to arms control, they will not have to start from scratch. Revival is possible because foundational elements for avoiding nuclear war remain in place. Deterrence is well funded and national vulnerability between nuclear-armed rivals remains inescapable. Key norms continue to constrain the options of deterrence strategists and national leaders. The norm of no battlefield use of nuclear weapons is now over seven decades old. The last tests of nuclear weapon designs of any military consequence by a pairing of nuclear-armed rivals occurred over two decades ago. Since every test of a nuclear weapon constitutes a declaration of military utility, the absence of testing matters greatly. These norms can be broken tomorrow or next year. But these two key norms have survived many days and many years. Because they are the hardest for any national leader to break, their extension is feasible.

Leaders who wish to avoid nuclear war can build on these foundational elements. A third critical norm, that of nonproliferation, is codified in a treaty that was indefinitely extended in 1995. This norm requires reinforcement because additional pairings of nuclear-armed rivals would multiply chances of catastrophe. Iran poses a serious challenge to this norm. Reaffirmation can be pursued either through diplomacy or, if diplomacy is vitiated, through military strikes. The follow-on proliferation consequences of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons are so great that this stark choice is unavoidable.

Those who denigrate arms control forget that, by the end of the Cold War, conditions for lasting nuclear peace were in hand — not because of strengthened deterrence, but because champions of deterrence adopted the practices of arms control. The United States and Russia were no longer enemies. Crucial norms were in place alongside the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which codified national vulnerability, thereby removing one incentive for increased nuclear force levels. Strategic forces were no longer threatening: Indeed, Boris Yeltsin agreed in the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to the prohibition of land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads. Conditions for strategic, crisis, and arms race stability were therefore at hand. Deep cuts were envisioned. Dangerous military practices were absent. Major powers respected the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of others.

This was the inheritance that Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump found unnecessary and inconvenient. Putin initiated the demise of arms control by disregarding provisions of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, prompting, as forewarned, Putin’s withdrawal from the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and its prohibition of land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads. As NATO expanded, Putin became more blatant in violating treaties, most notably the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Bush announced plans to deploy missile defenses in new NATO countries and to include Georgia and Ukraine in the queue for future NATO membership. Then Putin’s army marched on Tbilisi, after which he carried out hybrid warfare in eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Putin then shed crocodile tears when Trump withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces and Open Skies treaties.

Where do we go from here? During the Cold War, strategic arms control was built on treaties, and treaties were built on numbers. Treaties and numbers still matter greatly, but they are much harder to negotiate in a triangular, as opposed to a bilateral, context. Because of the complex geometry of nuclear competition and because of domestic politics in the United States, less formal constraints seem unavoidable. More states will have seats at the table, most importantly China. All this will take time. In the meantime, norms matter more than formalities. Norms are easier to extend than new strategic arms reduction treaties are to negotiate, and nuclear numbers are to reduce. A hard focus on extending and reaffirming crucial norms can, over time, establish conditions for far fewer numbers, with or without treaties.

If Beijing and Moscow choose to engage in dangerous military practices, arms control, whether by means of norm strengthening or numbers, will not succeed. In this event, the United States will also increasingly engage in dangerous military practices. The dynamics of this competition will invite crises, or worse. Perhaps then, the competitors will become more inclined toward measures of reassurance alongside deterrence.

In my book, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control, I propose that we embrace an ambitious goal of extending the three norms of no use, no testing, and no new proliferation to the 100th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Imagine, if you can, a world in which nuclear weapons have not been used on battlefields for 100 years, and a world in which nuclear weapons have not been tested by major and regional powers for almost five decades. Imagine, too, that North Korea remains the last nuclear-armed state. Now imagine the perceived utility of nuclear weapons in 2045. How many potential mushroom clouds would be required for deterrence? How high would the barriers be against use and testing?

Aiming for a century of non-battlefield use, a half-century of not testing nuclear weapons, and another quarter-century of successful nonproliferation might seem too ambitious and even otherworldly. Perhaps, but in 1945 it seemed otherworldly to envision a world in which nuclear weapons would not be used in warfare for three-quarters of a century. When conversations began about limiting nuclear testing in the Eisenhower administration, it was similarly otherworldly to envision a world in which major and regional powers would not conduct tests for a quarter-century. Those who conceived of a global nonproliferation compact more than a half-century ago were rewarded with 62 signatories. Notably absent were China, France, West Germany, other U.S. allies, Brazil, Argentina, and leading non-aligned states. This treaty now has 189 adherents, one dropout, North Korea, and one severe test — Iran.

The hardest part of establishing these three bedrock norms is behind us. Further extensions are possible, even in a period of heightened competition, because they are the most difficult norms for national leaders to break. The national leader who authorizes the first use a nuclear weapon since 1945 will live in infamy for the rest of recorded history. The companion norm of no testing signifies recognition of the dangers associated with use. Experiments continue, and those who complain about troubling experiments block on-site inspections by opposing ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

Chinese officials have repeatedly said that they will not ratify the test ban treaty until the U.S. Senate consents to do so. India won’t ratify until China does, and Pakistan will wait for India to ratify. Republican senators most concerned by China’s nuclear build up can do something about it: They can consent to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty while demanding that all four instruments of ratification be deposited together. A cascade of ratifications could begin with a super-majority vote in the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, test moratoria continue because the major power willing to resume testing would set off a very different cascade, as all four nuclear-armed rivalries would follow suit.

The greatest nuclear dangers reside in the increase in dangerous military practices between the United States and China, Russia and the United States, India and China, and Pakistan and India. Air and naval operations in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea increase the likelihood of crises, as do military operations in eastern Ukraine. But we’ve been here before, not just with the Soviet Union, but also with China. Despite severe crises and because of diplomacy, the norm of no battlefield use has held, at least so far. Norm strengthening is a matter of daily occurrence. Success happens one day at a time and one crisis at a time.

What, then, to do about treaties and numbers? President Joe Biden and Putin quickly agreed to extend verifiable limits in the 2010 Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty for another five years. Negotiating next steps will be challenging. U.S. and Russian negotiators are discussing many agenda items, with some preferences clearly beyond reach. The greatest threats to nuclear peace at present relate to ground, air, and naval forces operating in close proximity, as well as dangerous cyber and space practices. Consequently, Washington’s most challenging and urgent agenda items relate to codes of conduct rather than numerical arms control. This agenda belongs at the top of Washington’s conversations with Beijing as well as Moscow.

Another U.S.-Russian treaty mandating further reductions becomes harder to envision as China ramps up its force structure. Trump was right in calling for Beijing’s inclusion and an end to its free riding, but he proposed a trilateral warhead counting exercise rather than effective controls and reductions. Whatever appeal this proposal has in conceptual or visionary terms — or some downsized variant of this idea, such as counting tactical nuclear weapons — it would constitute a very lengthy digression from reducing nuclear dangers. Norm strengthening is needed well before counting is completed and reductions can begin.

Where can this most usefully be done? The 65-member Conference on Disarmament in Geneva is too unwieldy to succeed. Its last hurrahs in treaty making occurred during the Clinton administration. Ever since, its procedures have empowered blocking action. There is also scant reason to expect that the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council can become an effective forum to advance important arms control agenda items. The geometry of nuclear competition suggests creation of a new forum to focus on norm building and codes of conduct in which all four pairs of nuclear-armed rivals are represented along with Britain and France, countries with great expertise and practical experience to offer. I would exclude Israel and North Korea from this forum because their addition poses more problems than potential benefits.

A seven-nation forum consisting of the United States, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Britain, and France would be hard to steer, but the nuclear dangers we now face are interconnected and unwieldy. When the nature of a problem seems intractably complex, the wisest course might just be to expand the scope of the problem. Even as the four pairs compete, they have the most to lose if key norms are broken and the most to gain if they are extended. Existing bilateral conversations on nuclear risk reduction would, of course, continue, but there are no effective channels of communication and substantive exchanges between India and China and between India and Pakistan, where border clashes are becoming more intense. A non-hierarchical, seven-nation approach to norm building might just succeed. All seven have significant concerns about the intentions and capabilities of states with the most dynamic nuclear modernization programs. Each state has its own reasons to engage, as well as to be wary. If other states are willing to sit at the table, it becomes harder for anyone to hold out.

The ground rules for seven-nation talks seem most likely to avoid traps if the agreed focus of conversation is nuclear risk reduction and norm building. Sidebar conversations would be encouraged, as they could lay the groundwork for bilateral agreements. The tabling of bilateral issues would, however, be prohibited. The first order of business might be to affirm the canonical Reagan-Gorbachev pledge that a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought. Thematic discussions on dangerous military practices might suggest common concerns and remedies, whether bilateral or multilateral.

Again, this sounds wildly optimistic. The intensification of rivalries could well foreclose useful discussions — even if all seven states agree to attend. There are many pitfalls, requiring deft multilateral diplomacy. The U.S. State Department would need reinforcements. And yet, for all the manifold difficulties involved, there is sufficient connective tissue to try. Potential benefits include new opportunities to engage China and to open clogged channels of conversation.

Over time, if this forum proves its worth, topics could evolve from norm building to the consideration of guardrails, limits, and reductions for nuclear modernization programs. None of the states with the most dynamic modernization programs are willing to relax requirements unless others do. One approach worth considering is a multilateral build-down concept where all seven states would agree to reduce the size of their arsenals as they modernize them. A build-down approach has the advantage of becoming all encompassing, while avoiding a ratio-based, hierarchical, multilateral system that has been tried before for naval arms control and that has no practical chance of success.

Lengthening and strengthening norms have to be the first order of business when dangerous military practices are on the rise. Numerically based arms control cannot take an extended holiday, however, especially since Russia is adding new means of delivery to its strategic forces and Beijing is acting with dispatch to significantly increase its deployments of land-based missiles.

As if the agenda outlined here isn’t ambitious enough, a new negotiating forum to address trilateral nuclear arms control and reductions seems inescapable. The more China builds up, the harder it becomes to succeed at bilateral controls. There are, no doubt, mixed motives behind the speed of Beijing’s build up, which is reminiscent of the Kremlin’s actions in preparations for strategic arms limitation talks in the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Some deterrence strategists will view Beijing’s activities as early evidence of nuclear war-winning ambitions. Other explanations seem more likely, including the prosaic impulses of seeking to gain leverage in upcoming negotiations and to avoid disadvantage.

Beijing surely recognizes that it cannot “just say no” to strategic arms limitations indefinitely. Because Beijing is in a hurry, the Biden administration is obliged to speed up preparations for trilateral negotiations on numerical limitations that serve U.S. national security interests as well as the interests of friends and allies. As with the U.S.-Soviet strategic arms limitation talks, trilateral discussions are likely to encounter stalls and unexpected delays. We have time to do our homework on important matters of scope and limitation.

When the Johnson administration was first preparing for negotiations with the Kremlin, its plans included limitations on medium-range, intermediate-range, as well as ocean-spanning missiles. This approach is worth reconsidering, given Putin’s deployment of these missiles in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, U.S. rejoinders, and China’s heavy investments in missiles of less-than-intercontinental-range. Then there is the highly contentious matter of including interceptors for national missile defenses.

Depending on what means of delivery are included and excluded, it might be possible to devise an effective arms control regime with equal aggregates of nuclear-capable delivery vehicles and missile defense interceptors. A firestorm of protests to equal aggregates with China as well as Russia can be expected, but depending on units of account, counting rules, and range limits, they might well serve the interests of the United States as well as U.S. friends and allies. Dozens of loopholes would need to be nailed shut, and Beijing would have to accept uncomfortable monitoring arrangements. Success will be very hard to achieve and will likely be followed by setbacks until leaders arrive on the scene who are willing to buck deterrence orthodoxy. When they do, the build-down concept of reducing while modernizing might also apply.

If and when norm-strengthening negotiations evolve into numerical accords, the fluidity of trilateral relations and opposition on Capitol Hill will preclude treaty making. If trilateral accords can somehow be reached, they would likely take the form of executive agreements and be term limited. The arguments in favor of formality and agreements of indefinite duration are not persuasive when treaties, like executive agreements, can be discarded after U.S. national elections. The reaffirmation of norms need not await the resolution of discussions about numbers. To the contrary: The reaffirmation of norms is needed if trilateral talks are to succeed over time. Even if agreements are not reachable or as inclusive as we would like, preliminary discussions with Moscow and Beijing could still have utility. At a minimum, it could prod useful assessments of different limitation parameters and on how best to proceed.

Those who didn’t recognize winning the nuclear peace will surely notice its loss. Strengthening deterrence provides no guarantee against catastrophic loss. To avoid nuclear war, diplomacy and arms control have to accompany deterrence. Sooner or later, national leaders will revive arms control because our lives depend on it. Reassurance and stabilization begin with lengthening and strengthening norms and can take many forms. Reinvention depends on diplomatic adeptness, creativity, and wisdom. It also depends on the state of relations between major powers. If their competition sharpens, and if national leaders are content to intensify that competition, then no proposals to reverse course will succeed.

When leaders decide to pursue course corrections or when leaders change, opportunities will arise. When conditions permit, they’ll need plans on how best to proceed. We face daunting challenges because policymakers have run out of simple solutions. We have much ground to cover since the era of grand treaty making ended with the Cold War. It’s time to plan once again for a future in which nuclear weapons aren’t used in warfare. We’ve succeeded in the past, and we can succeed again by harnessing deterrence with arms control.



Michael Krepon is the co-founder of the Stimson Center and the author of Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control, from which this essay is drawn.

Image: North American Aerospace Defense Command