Reasons for optimism

By Lu Yin, February 25, 2015

This roundtable, which began as a discussion about nuclear modernizations, has in fact highlighted the enormous challenges that surround efforts toward nuclear arms control and disarmament. Eugene Miasnikov has discussed Russia's nuclear posture and policies in light of the security concerns that Moscow perceives to emanate from the United States, and Matthew Kroenig has done likewise from a US perspective. Kroenig, for example, devoting much attention to Russia's activities in Ukraine, has written that "the United States should field the nuclear arsenal that is necessary to deter present threats to international peace and security." Miasnikov has expressed dissatisfaction about NATO's eastward expansion, writing that when Moscow withdrew its nuclear forces from Eastern Europe and territories of the former Soviet Union, "it did not expect that the West would seek to extend its military alliance closer to Russia's borders." One can see from Miasnikov and Kroenig's essays that sentiment in favor of developing and deploying nuclear weapons still runs strong, even decades after the Cold War ended.

Severe challenges surround efforts toward nuclear arms control and disarmament. Responsibility for addressing those challenges starts with the United States and Russia, which maintain huge nuclear arsenals, far out of proportion to their actual needs. These two countries can set a positive example for other nuclear-armed countries—or, by overemphasizing the need to upgrade nuclear arsenals and by failing to make deep cuts, they can risk setting off a nuclear chain reaction. Countries such as China, with limited nuclear arsenals, are concerned about the insufficient disarmament progress displayed by Washington and Moscow. China and other nuclear weapon states will hesitate to join a multilateral disarmament process if the United States and Russia fail to pursue deep cuts. Non-nuclear weapon states might be tempted to pursue nuclear capabilities. Increased proliferation could lead to nuclear terrorism.

Against this backdrop, some pessimism is justifiable regarding the long-term goal of eliminating nuclear weapons from the world. But regarding the nearer-term goal of establishing smaller nuclear arsenals, cautious optimism is appropriate. Huge nuclear arsenals have become redundant in the post–Cold War security environment. Nuclear modernization and maintenance are very expensive. For the two nuclear superpowers, reducing arsenal size would simply be a practical choice. Even with smaller stockpiles of weapons, Washington and Moscow would retain their deterrence capability. They would also, at least partially, satisfy the disarmament expectations of the international community. Nations with smaller nuclear arsenals must also join arms control and disarmament processes in the long run. In the meantime, they must be careful not to impede bilateral reductions.

The complete prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons may be a long-term dream at this point, but the longest journey begins with a single step. A practical path toward disarmament can be set if all nuclear-armed nations take concrete actions such as dealing cooperatively with common security challenges, instituting or enhancing confidence-building measures, making careful plans for crisis management, and seeking to avoid miscalculations. In addition, nuclear-armed countries should seriously consider establishing a treaty that would, among signatories, ban the first use of nuclear weapons. Such a treaty would also prohibit using nuclear weapons, or threatening to use them, against non-nuclear weapon states at any time and under any conditions. National positions on such a treaty might constitute a litmus test as to whether countries are truly serious about nuclear disarmament.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons