The arms control agendas of 2021: some reflections

The extension of the US-Russian New START agreement on strategic nuclear weapons was achieved through the exchange of two sets of diplomatic notes between the respective governments, on 26 January and 3 February. The process was super-straightforward. Both President Putin of Russia and Joe Biden while US President-elect made clear they would each favour extension. The day after inauguration President Biden officially confirmed the position. A few days later, it was done. This was the lowest of low-hanging fruit. Good to have gotten it out of the way (and stupid that the previous administration let it go down to the wire) but now the real work starts.

That was the easy bit

As far as nuclear weapons are concerned there are two timeframes to think about. One is from 2026, that is to say, from when the extended New START finally lapses and must be replaced by another agreement. It’s not going to be easy (see below). But there is five years in which to negotiate it, which could be enough time if they start now.

The other timeframe is within 2021 itself, as we head towards the postponed Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It should have been held last year; the current plan is to hold it no later than August this year. The big question is how the five nuclear weapon states that are parties to the NPT (China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA) will respond to criticism and pressure that will predictably come from many of the non-nuclear weapon states, who will object that nuclear arms reductions have not gone far enough (more on tensions between nuclear and non-nuclear states here).

And these are far from the only issues to resolve in arms control. There’s chemical weapons and biological weapons, the militarisation of outer space, cyber space, artificial intelligence, the regulation of the conventional arms trade and the continuing importance of trying to control and reduce the illicit international trade in small arms and light weapons – all of this in a context of fast-paced technological change that, arguably, also needs control and management if we are to keep pace with it. That’s why the title of this post refers to “agendas” – plural.

I go into these complexities a little, and come out at the far end with some thoughts about realistic optimism in what outcomes we can expect or hope for in 2021, in this film, the latest in SIPRI‘s Peace Points series:

The trust factor – and the shifting calculus of power

Beyond the technologies and the tangibles, there’s something else that may be the source of yet bigger headaches.

There are some who think that New START may be the last of its genre of arms control agreements. One part of their core argument is that technology is rules out a future agreement on the same lines as New START, which employs a conceptual model dating back to the 1970s. It is not a weak point but technical issues of that kind can always be resolved if there is both the political will and the political capacity to do so. Here, the core argument of the sceptics in the USA is that, after two US administrations (Obama’s and Trump’s) and NATO all agreed that Russia had cheated on the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (the INF Treaty, from which Trump withdrew in September 2019), how can anyone trust Russia again? On the other side of that coin, of course, there are those who ask, well, after Trump and his withdrawal from anything he felt like, how can anyone trust the USA again, however much Biden’s arrival as President is welcome?

It is easy – perhaps too easy – to refer back to the 1970s, when the first steps towards agreeing limits on strategic nuclear weapons were taken in an atmosphere of at least as much distrust, to argue from historical precedent on the grounds that was done once can be done again.

Yes it can but there is a difference today. It lies in the nature of the rivalry between the USSR and the USA compared to between Russia and the USA – and in the natures of the two contending states.

Despite everything that was corrupt and fake about the USSR, and despite every way in which US policy, not least in Vietnam, betrayed the aims of freedom and democracy for which it claimed to stand, this was also a confrontation of two different systems, an ideological confrontation. Today, between Russia and the USA, it is a confrontation between competing appetites for power and influence.

For all that looked so durable and, to some western eyes, so threatening about the USSR, it was a state that was in the process of stagnating. Today’s Russia has a set of international policies that are nimble and opportunistic.

Likewise, whatever the radical critics of US power thought, the USA had a bipartisan consensus in favour of a system of rules and order, which it had led the way in constructing and from which it gained great benefit. That consensus no longer exists.

Finally, the USA and the USSR were the superpowers of the day, the two states, and the only two states, with global reach (even if the USA’s global reach utterly outmatched the USSR’s). Today that is not true. China’s rise as an economic, trade and political power is part of the context that shapes how Russia and the US relate to each other, and that will also have an influence on how they take on arms control.

In my view, this does not add up to mean the end of arms control as we have known it. But the shifting calculus of power as well as the problem of finding some way to trust that commitments, once undertaken, will be fulfilled, even if and when politics shift – this does add up to mean that arms control will need to be done differently.

As a first and very limited thought on that score, the issue of participation in arms control negotiations may be a good starting point. It remains a conundrum, why two states that possess arsenals capable of destroying much of human life are the only ones entitled to discuss what to do about those arsenals. After all, we all have a stake.

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