Tinkering won’t produce disarmament

By Matthew Kroenig, January 23, 2015

This roundtable supposes a tension between the nuclear powers’ stated disarmament goals and their current plans to modernize their nuclear forces. But does such a tension in fact exist? That depends to a large degree on one’s assumptions about how global disarmament, if achievable, will most likely come about.

Many assume that disarmament will result from a slow, deliberate process in which the nuclear powers sign arms control agreements that gradually reduce the size of nuclear forces—until nuclear weapons no longer exist. This view appears to underlie Eugene Miasnikov and Lu Yin’s Round One essays. Both my roundtable colleagues criticize US modernization plans and argue that the United States should scale back those plans. Lu asserts that the United States (as well as Russia) should follow China’s example in de-emphasizing nuclear weapons. Both authors, meanwhile, raise concerns about US ballistic missile defense and Washington’s conventional Prompt Global Strike program.

In making their arguments, however, Miasnikov and Lu could have demonstrated greater introspection. The United States is debating modernization, but Russia is completing it. Moscow is introducing new intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, and submarines. It has violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by testing a new intermediate-range, ground-launched cruise missile. And, in defiance of its promises at the end of the Cold War, Russia retains thousands of battlefield nuclear weapons, ready for use. China has been commendably restrained in comparison. But it too is expanding and modernizing its nuclear forces. And though China trumpets its formal no-first-use policy, Chinese officials privately admit that Beijing might use nuclear weapons first under a narrow range of contingencies.

The United States, on the other hand, transparently disavows a no-first-use policy—precisely because, under a narrow range of circumstances, Washington might use nuclear weapons first. But if Washington truly sought a first-strike advantage, as Miasnikov and Lu fear, US ballistic missile defenses and Prompt Global Strike capabilities would look very different from the minimal systems currently deployed or under consideration.

On a more fundamental level, though, the thrust of my colleagues’ essays may be misguided—in the sense that it’s hard to understand how tinkering with nuclear modernization plans will directly contribute to something as profound as worldwide nuclear disarmament. Such steps would do little to address the security concerns that encourage states to possess nuclear weapons in the first place. As former US President Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, "[W]e do not mistrust each other because we are armed. We are armed because we mistrust each other."

Indeed, consistent with this perspective, the largest nuclear reductions in history followed immediately on the heels of the cessation of Cold War hostilities. Presumably, worldwide nuclear disarmament would require an even more radical reduction in tensions among all states. Proposals that recommend changing strategic postures as a step toward disarmament, therefore, risk confusing cause and effect.

Global disarmament will require nothing less than the eradication of the root causes of international insecurity. While ameliorating security concerns is no easy task, the United States over the past 70 years has contributed to this effort by providing the global public good of security. It has done this, among other means, by protecting Asian and European allies through the extension of a nuclear umbrella; by dissuading these allies from building their own nuclear arsenals; and by sparing Russia and China the necessity of engaging in dangerous arms races with regional rivals.

Due to recent Russian and Chinese actions, however, international stability is under threat. In the past year, Russia has violently occupied Crimea and invaded the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. It continues to menace the rest of Ukraine and Europe. China makes confrontational claims in the South China Sea. Its conventional military build-up threatens to overturn the military balance that has kept the peace in East Asia for over half a century—a peace from which China has benefited more than any other state.

From this perspective, the nuclear modernization plans of the nuclear powers may not be the most significant impediment to worldwide nuclear disarmament. Rather, the greatest obstacle may be revisionist foreign policies that imperil international peace and security.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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