Strategic stability and arms control: Not sacred

By Liviu Horovitz, October 16, 2014

Underpinning the missile-defense arguments of my roundtable colleagues Wu Riqiang and Tatiana Anichkina are a core belief in the efficacy of nuclear deterrence and a core interest in preserving the nuclear status quo. They hope to maintain an environment in which mutual assured destruction, otherwise known as "strategic stability," prevents the United States from using nuclear weapons to coerce China or Russia into making painful concessions. Wu and Anichkina are true stability seekers of the kind I described in Round One.

Their arguments make sense only within the narrow framework of their own assumptions and longings. Observers with different assumptions—disarmament advocates, or proponents of national supremacy—would simply dismiss their arguments as irrelevant. Convinced disarmers, for example, believe that deterrence does not work. Slight imbalances in nuclear arsenals are meaningless. It's abolition that's important. Supremacists, if they're honest, would admit that nuclear superiority is precisely the aim of effective missile defense. But Wu and Anichkina's arguments suffer from several flaws even within the framework of the authors' assumptions.

My colleagues are correct that, as US missile defenses improve, China and Russia will become more reluctant to reduce their nuclear arsenals. But China's arsenal is small in the first place and Beijing has few options for trimming its forces. Russia also appears to have exhausted many of its arms control options, especially taking into account the overwhelming conventional military superiority of the United States. So US missile defenses seem to provide both China and Russia a convenient excuse for avoiding discussions about nuclear reductions. But in any event, from the perspective of a small, non-nuclear country such as my own, what difference does it make whether Russia can obliterate Romania 1,000 times or 2,000? Why should minute arsenal adjustments among great powers seem truly relevant to Romanians?

Even if all nuclear powers reduced their arsenals, I don't believe that such reductions would ever lead to abolition. But given Wu and Anichkina's assumptions about deterrence, I don't understand why they favor complete nuclear disarmament. Complete disarmament—unless it were accompanied by world government, or unless weaponry of all kinds were abolished—would expose Russia and China to the conventional military superiority of the United States, requiring both nations to divert significant resources to upgrading their armed forces. If Russia and China seek stability, they have no reason to favor nuclear disarmament. Pledges to the contrary are nothing more than public diplomacy.

What of disarmament's relationship to nonproliferation? Anichkina advances the well-known argument that nuclear reductions are necessary if the nonproliferation regime is to be maintained; the regime is needed in turn if proliferation is to be prevented. This logic seems appealing, but little evidence supports it. First, limited nuclear reductions appear to have a very modest impact on the success of the nonproliferation regime. Second, it remains unclear how much credit the regime can claim for stopping proliferation in the past. Finally, much nonproliferation activity is currently occurring outside the regime, often as a result of US efforts. It is therefore far-fetched to argue that everyone opposed to proliferation must oppose US missile defense.

In Round Two, Anichkina argued forcefully that US missile defenses harm US-Russia relations. I don't dispute the fact that US missile defenses are troublesome to many within Russia's strategic and nuclear planning apparatus. Current US missile defense deployments are innocuous, but Russia has good reason to suspect Washington of harboring supremacist intentions. (A close examination of US behavior over the last two decades supports this suspicion.) But Russia has good reason to dislike any US military deployment in Central and Eastern Europe.

Moscow understands, as do the countries where US missile defenses are deployed, that the US presence solidifies the transatlantic alliance and allows host nations to behave in a less accommodating fashion toward Russia. Seen from a broader perspective, the US security guarantees of which missile defense is one component—along with the economic attraction of the European Union—are pulling Central and Eastern European states out of Russia's sphere of influence. Moscow's concerns about losing influence in Europe are legitimate. But if Russia wishes to forestall this trend, it would do better to build a free and prosperous society within its own borders. Bitterly protesting US and Western European encroachment accomplishes little.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons