Arms control in 2021

There are so many crucial items on the global agenda that one struggles to keep up (though I do wonder whether there really are more now than there used to be or does it just feel that way?). Covid-19 and its economic consequences, the likely increase in extreme poverty and hunger, climate change and the rest of the compound environmental crisis, the attack on democracy in the world’s richest and most powerfully armed state, rising inequality, toxic geopolitics, intractable armed conflicts. And more. This does not seem to be a happy age that we are living through.

In this (rather lengthy) post, I focus on prospects for arms control in 2021. The big challenge is how to make progress against such an unpromising backdrop.

Out with the old, in with the new

The arms control agenda in 2021 has three immediate challenges: New START, the Iran nuclear deal and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Except for talks with North Korea, the Trump administration showed a profound dislike of arms control. It ended US adherence to the Iran nuclear deal, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 and the Open Skies Treaty of 2002 . It regarded the potential demise in February this year of the US-Russian New START strategic nuclear agreement with apparent indifference.

Assuming the events of 6 January were Trump hitting rock bottom and nothing arises to impede Joe Biden’s inauguration on 20 January, what should we expect? Trump’s administration has been negative for so many agendas, there is a tendency to overload Biden with fond hopes heaped on unlikely expectations. After which comes inevitable disappointment. But one area where high expectations of the Biden administration could seem realistic is arms control. The early signs are that Biden’s commitment to international cooperation including arms control is reflected in his choices for his foreign and security policy team, many of whom are veterans of the Obama administration. Even so, with complex tasks ahead, modest expectations will be wise.

New START (and after)

The 2010 New START treaty reduced and capped the numbers of Russian and US long-range nuclear arsenals weapons. It is due to expire on 5 February. Fortunately, it has a clause allowing for a five-year extension. So in his first two weeks as President, Joe Biden needs to pick up the phone and tell Russian President Putin that he, like Putin, wants to extend New START. That’s basically what it would take, plus a quick signing ceremony.

Until a late and (probably) electorally motivated change of approach, the Trump administration opposed extending New START unless China came into it. This was always a non-starter. If you are serious about negotiations, you don’t hand the power of decision to somebody who is not taking part in them. Predictably, China refused to join in. It has far fewer nuclear warheads than either the USA or Russia and said it would join in trilateral talks when their numbers come down.

More than anything, the ploy looked like an excuse for not agreeing to extend. And that impression was only strengthened when, in a strange stunt, US negotiators about to meet with Russian representatives to discuss possible extension of the treaty, arranged – and tweeted photos of – empty chairs and a Chinese flag at the negotiating table.

Notwithstanding all this cavorting, there is a serious issue about China. Its nuclear warhead numbers are much lower than those of Russia and the USA but slowly increasing. It is not unreasonable to suggest that, once New START extension is done and dusted, a new set of talks could proceed that could include China.

But look at the numbers. If China is included, why not Britain and France? Do they deserve a free ride? If Britain, why not India and Pakistan? Does the fact that they are not parties to the NPT relieve them of responsibility for ensuring the dangers of nuclear military relationships are reduced? And if India and Pakistan, then why not Israel: why should its persistent refusal to acknowledge that it possesses nuclear weapons let it off? And then, of course, what about North Korea…?

These questions are easily posed but not so easy to answer, not given current political realities in the nuclear-equipped states and between them. I both expect and hope the Biden administration will do what is needed to extend New START and then start a serious discussion about what to do next.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

Representatives of Iran, the USA, the EU, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia at the signing of the JCPOA in July 2015
(Note: it is not an Iranian-US deal and the US withdrawal from it did not end it)

I wish I could be more optimistic about the JCPOA. This is an arms control deal that was working until Trump decided to pull the USA out. It limited Iran’s uranium enrichment programme until 2030, with a monitoring system that would remain in place much longer. At the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), our assessment has been from the outset that the agreement is technically sound with robust verification procedures. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is responsible for monitoring Iran’s JCPOA implementation. Until one year after US withdrawal, it consistently found that Iran was fully living up to its undertakings. In short, well-crafted and properly implemented, the JCPOA closed off Iran’s pathway to nuclear weapons. When the USA withdrew, the pathway re-opened: Iran waited a year, then started to breach the JCPOA limits.

A successful resumption of the deal could require more political capital than Biden wants to invest. Opposition to the JCPOA in the USA (and in Israel and Saudi Arabia) has never been about an evidence-based technical objection to the agreement or its implementation. It is about opposing Iran’s actions in Syria and elsewhere in the region. Deeper than that, in many quarters, dislike of the Islamic Republic is visceral; it goes back to the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 it. Now that Iran has accelerated its nuclear enrichment, there will be a mountain of anti-Iran sentiment to get over if the deal is to be revitalised.

And there will also be opposition in Iran where the JCPOA is not so very popular. The quid pro quo in the deal was that if Iran agreed to ruling out the nuclear option for itself, sanctions would be lifted, and it would be allowed back into the international trading and financial system. That never happened. There were some changes but Iran was never fully reconnected to world trade. International investors largely stayed away. In addition, the USA killed a senior and very popular Iranian military figure, General Suleimani, in January 2020. And somebody killed a senior Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakrizadeh, in November. None of this puts Iranian public and political opinion in the right frame of mind for concessions or for trusting US good faith, even if the US leadership changes. And as if all that is not problematic enough, Iran’s Presidential election is due in June this year.

It would likely take something very special to get Iran to agree to run down its enrichment programme again. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has said the US sanctions must be unconditionally lifted first. For Biden, the domestic political cost of that might be too high. If so, it is hard to see what else he could put on the table that is big enough to be sold to the Iranian public, yet modest enough to work politically in the USA. If Biden’s team can pull it off, they will deserve a serious amount of credit.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was 50 years old in 2020 and a five-yearly Review Conference (RevCon) should have been held. It was postponed due to Covid-19 to this month, then postponed again and is currently due to be held in August.

The NPT is a crucially important agreement. Its parties undertake not to get nuclear weapons if they are Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) and to take steps to reduce and get rid of them if they are already Nuclear Weapon States (NWS). When the NPT came into force, there were five known NWS – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Israel already had nuclear weapons but secretly. That was the nuclear status quo. SIPRI’s 1972 Yearbook identified a further 15 states with “near nuclear” status. This was the proliferation risk as seen at the time. Since then, India, Pakistan and North Korea have gone nuclear. On the other side of the balance sheet, South Africa gave up its nuclear weapon development programme when apartheid was overthrown, while Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all gave up the nuclear weapons they could have kept as successor states to the USSR.

So, taken as a whole and assessed in the light of perceived risk in the 1970s, the non-proliferation regime – the NPT plus the system of IAEA safeguards and monitoring – has been imperfect but not wholly unsuccessful.

Despite this, the RevCon is often a moment to air the tensions between NNWS and NWS. In 1990, it “failed to issue a  Final Document.” In 1995, the NPT was made permanent but disagreements about progress towards nuclear disarmament “became more visible.” In 2000, the RevCon agreed an action plan for nuclear disarmament but the NWS representatives said it meant no change in their own policies. In 2005, there was deadlock and no final report with any substantive decisions. In 2010, at last, “The meeting was characterized by a cordial and generally constructive atmosphere. But in 2015, “After 20 working days, which witnessed heated discussions …, the conference ended without any agreement on a concluding document or recommendations.”

Most RevCons, in short, are not much fun.

The basis for this is the bargain at the heart of the NPT, in which the NNWS agree to stay non-nuclear while the NWS commit to taking steps to get rid of their nuclear weapons. It means the NPT is not only an arms control treaty but also a disarmament agreement, as expressed in Article VI:

Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

Many NNWS see the current nuclear arsenals of the five NWS as defying the Article VI commitment. And not without reason: half a century after the treaty entered force, the idea of “at an early date” does seem to have passed us by.

There have, nonetheless, been impressive reductions in the numbers of nuclear weapons worldwide, and especially in the Russian and US arsenals, over the past 30 or so years. As with the NPT itself, the record of nuclear arms reduction is imperfect – and while any nuclear weapons exist, there remains a possibility of nuclear use – but not wholly unsuccessful.

Source: Federation of American Scientists:

A new start for the NPT?

This is where the different parts of the arms control story come together. The prospect raised by the Trump administration’s approach if it stayed in office was that New START would lapse with nothing to replace it except blame and rhetoric aimed at China. And that was not going to play well with NNWS gathered at the RevCon. It is not likely but nor is it impossible that one or more states party to the treaty would have announced they were thinking about withdrawing from the treaty. Put that into a context that includes the continuation of a US administration whose commitment to treaties would always be regarded as contingent at best. Add to it that there would be no existing bilateral arms control agreements between Russia and USA. Top it off with all states that own nuclear weapons upgrading their arsenals. The result would be a much weaker and less credible architecture of non-proliferation. Further increase in the number of states owning nuclear weapons would be a worryingly plausible prospect.

The world has been saved from that scenario for now. But what can the five NWS that are recognised as such in the NPT, the four other states with nuclear arsenals, and the leading voices among the NWS do to take advantage of the consequent breathing space? The five NWS need to be jolted out of their complacency about this. Doing arms control among the five on the basis of business as usual is certainly better than the no-business-at-all that Trump offered. The approach of the Biden administration can be counted upon to be far more responsible than its predecessor’s. But business as usual is not enough. The Stockholm Initiative, begun with a Ministerial meeting in June 2019, is an attempt to find a way forward that would be acceptable to both NWS and NNWS. There is considerable focus on measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in declaratory strategy, transparency and reducing nuclear risk. These are important measures but in the end most NWS will be looking for commitments to reduce arsenals, while many Middle Eastern states will emphasise the proposal at the 2010 RevCon for a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons – a measure that puts the spotlight on Israel.

So a new start for the NPT means extending New START but it also means more than that.

And two more things

There are two further, looming problems. The first is the unending forward march of technology. As it offers opportunities for military exploitation, it sets multiple challenges for security. It sets up the possibility of conflict in cyber space; it increases the feasibility of autonomy in weapon systems; it has disruptive effects on the strategic balance with hypersonic glide, machine learning and ballistic missile defence. In predominant modes of security thinking, there are two possible responses to technological innovation: through countervailing innovation and through diplomacy – arms control. And here’s the problem. The political and diplomatic tasks of re-energising US-Russian bilateral arms control and upholding the architecture of non-proliferation are demanding but fairly standard. If energy and expertise are absorbed through the 2020s in addressing them, there will be little available for the more demanding (because unfamiliar) work of agreeing controls on military use of the newer technologies. And if the familiar tasks cannot be accomplished, what confidence can we have that the unfamiliar ones can be?

The second problem takes us back of the start of this post – our unhappy age. It has been a feature of the past four years that a deepening need for international cooperation has been met by a declining appetite for cooperation among the three great powers. Biden’s inauguration therefore signals a major opportunity because he is firmly committed to supporting the norms, laws and institutions of international cooperation. But the environment is not helpful. US relations with China will not necessarily improve with Biden in the White House – there is considerable anti-China sentiment right across the political spectrum over a variety of human rights and economic issues – and relations with Russia might even deteriorate.

In any case, it does not fall to the USA alone to do what is necessary to re-energise arms control and sustain non-proliferation. Apart from anything else, it is not the only economic superpower. The world is changing. China is the number one trading partner (paywall) of more countries than the USA is. Neither the Biden administration, nor America’s allies, nor its critics can behave any more as if the USA is the hegemon it was in the 1990s.

But the USA is a key player. And here we get to a difficult point. Everybody knows that the people attacking the US Congress on 6 January are not the whole USA. Not by any means. Nor are the rest of Trump’s supporters. But there’s the rub: nor are Biden’s supporters the whole USA. And so let’s air the question that has been nagging for four years: how much is an agreement with the USA worth? Can it be relied on? If another equally wilful and narrow-focus President gets elected, will all bets once again be off? In which case, of course, some will ask, why bother?

A key player – but all this means the tasks of getting arms control moving and supporting non-proliferation cannot be left to the USA alone, however much of a relief Biden’s arrival is.

In short, the challenge for arms control in 2021 and beyond, however unpropitious the context seems to be, is how to deepen and broaden international cooperation – on this as on other pressing challenges of our time. For obvious reasons, this post has concentrated on how far Biden’s inauguration will change the international scene for arms control but China and Russia have their own significant deficiencies in these areas of policy. These tasks cannot be left just to the big powers. This is when the rest have to step up.

2 thoughts on “Arms control in 2021

  1. Pingback: Extending New START | Dan Smith's blog

  2. Pingback: The arms control agendas of 2021: some reflections | Dan Smith's blog

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