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Even in these trying times, it is imperative not to lose sight of the many other global challenges we face. The coronavirus pandemic put to the test not only our bodies’ immunity and the effectiveness of our health care systems, but also the ways in which international relations have been, by and large, conducted for decades. The health crisis exacerbates inward political tendencies rather than openness, and ruthless geopolitical competition over cooperation and peace.
Such trends must be kept in check not only by the better angels of our nature, but also by strong common institutions of international society that together with rules and practices embody what we call ‘multilateralism’.
The Distress Signals
Arms control is one such challenge that needs to be addressed multilaterally. To devise effective multilateral arms control in order to check a deterioration in global security now seems to matter even more than before the coronavirus outbreak.
The arms control architecture – the legacy of realist cooperative practices during the Cold War – is crumbling while nuclear powers modernise their arsenals, exacerbating security dilemmas and increasing the risks of crises spiralling out of control. Deterrence strategies alone cannot deliver much needed strategic stability in the world, where security concerns are increasingly intertwined, new disruptive technologies emerge and multilateralism is challenged.
Our quintessential arms control treaties have been terminated, and those remaining have been reduced to the status of endangered species. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), abandoned last summer following years of Russia’s non-compliance, is one victim of this process. Like many other arms control agreements, it was negotiated under strenuous political conditions and served since then to stabilise superpower relations to the benefit of European security, through the prohibition of an entire class of escalatory weapon systems. It is now gone.
The Open Skies Treaty has been another pillar of European security and a useful means for monitoring military activities to avoid miscalculation and overreaction. It was also important for people-to-people contacts through cooperative overflights – more than 1,500 to date – at the time of rising geopolitical tensions. It too, sadly, is now a thing of the past.
The prospects for the survival of New START continue to be dire, and the likelihood that a better, more inclusive agreement is negotiated before it expires is close to nil. And all this is taking place as the spectre of proliferation looms ever-larger over the Middle East, arms races loom elsewhere, and longstanding divisions over the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – the backbone of our non-proliferation regime – are no closer to being bridged as we marked the 50th anniversary of the treaty’s conclusion earlier this year.
The Rescue: Slowly, but Globally
What is the way out? With the demise of the INF in particular, a nuclear war in Europe suddenly becomes a more realistic prospect. The dictum that a nuclear war cannot be won once retaliatory forces are in place, formulated by Bernard Brodie on the eve of the atomic age, seems to be losing currency by the day. NATO, its cohesion already tested, may witness an increased threat of strategic decoupling and be condemned to live through difficult debates on how to credibly respond to Russia’s military pressure in the absence of an effective arms control regime.
Yet the crisis of arms control is a global one, and any solution must be global in scope. New ideas about effective arms control instruments must be explored given contemporary trends such as: continuing great power competition; the horizontal proliferation (and actual expanded use) of missile systems; and the emergence of new and potentially disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence.
But first, all efforts – now to be relaunched through an upcoming meeting in Vienna on 22 June – should be made by the US and Russia to agree on extending the most conventional yet effective arms control arrangement. That is, the New START, the only remaining agreement that limits the two superpowers’ nuclear arsenal. If breathing space is gained, it should then be used for devising creative – albeit informal at first – arms control architectures or environments that would incorporate new actors. Non-nuclear states should be involved, since they share responsibility for disarmament, as should global civil society that can provide increasingly important means of societal verification. China’s participation is ultimately a must; its arsenal being an important reason why the INF Treaty had become obsolete (in addition to Moscow’s noncompliance), and Beijing’s hitherto notorious reticence to engage in transparency measures must also be dispelled.
The building blocks of this new framework should be as follows. First, start with political declarations, including on doctrine or moratoria – although not necessarily of the kind recently submitted by Moscow to NATO, which cavalierly ignored earlier deployments. Discussions in forums such as the P5 permanent members of the UN Security Council working group on doctrine are certainly a useful starting point as they can provide some clarity regarding the overall strategic balance, leading to a reduction of undesirable ambiguity and therefore risk.
Second, the framework should include enhanced confidence-building measures (CBMs) that can have binding power even if not formalised or enshrined in operational treaties – to wit, the informal but strong international norm against nuclear testing – as this should clearly include ‘soft’ norms propagated in frameworks, such as the Hague Code of Conduct, an international mechanism established in 2002 to control the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The latter is a good example of a previously multilateralised CBM that could further benefit from the inclusion of China or key Middle Eastern regional stakeholders, as much as from an extension to cover cruise missiles capable of carrying WMDs.
Third, the CBMs could be followed by reduction-cum-freeze arrangements, coordinated arms control talks in parallel bilateral ‘chess games’, or discussions over innovative and robust tracing and verification measures that would incorporate the technology production chains and include cooperative mechanisms, contributing on their own to the much needed confidence building.
Such verification procedures, together with an international regime with broad participation including non-nuclear states and NGOs, may overcome the effective reciprocity issues (including cheating at margins) by mitigating sanctioning problems. Developing a sound pay-off structure, to follow the now classic scholarship on international cooperation by Robert Keohane and Robert Axelrod, is another sine qua non condition, which will require both political and economic issue linkages and delinking the process from other outstanding controversies, as exemplified by Mikhail Gorbachev during the INF negotiations.
An initial limited bargain, paving the ground for a slow restoration of trust through repeated interactions thus seems a realistic way forward. Transparency, which particularly the lesser nuclear states including China have been reticent to grant should be reframed as a strategic good rather than vulnerability. This would contribute to generating trust, while stabilising mutual deterrence and allowing the owners of nuclear warheads and fissile materials (albeit perhaps reported on a voluntary basis only) to project an image as responsible members of the international society, thus providing much needed relief to the ailing patient that is the NPT. Fortunately, more time is now available to settle at least some of the differences among parties to the NPT due to the postponement of the Review Conference to next year.
Instruments of Engagement
The process can hardly be divorced from geopolitical realities. Trust, a rare commodity in international relations, may not come about as long as some parties pursue openly confrontational policies and make defence investments which appear to embed the early use of nuclear weapons in their military doctrines. But dialogue, entailing – crucially – the disposition to listen and understand the other side, must continue, including between NATO and Russia.
Hard security concerns aside, the opportunity costs of unbridled arms races must be measured also against the ever more existential need to invest to counter the adverse effects of climate change. This is hardly a revolutionary thought. After all, it was stipulated at the birth of the UN as a duty of the UN Security Council to promote and maintain international peace and security ‘with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources’.
Deft diplomacy and committed statecraft, together with sound expertise to underpin and sustain creative policy solutions, will be absolutely indispensable. A smaller country committed to effective multilateralism, the Czech Republic is ready to do its share. Our capacity to steer a major arms control agreement may be limited. This, however, should not be a reason for resignation. Prague is the city where the Warsaw Pact was dissolved and the New START treaty concluded. We stand committed to provide the good services that may be necessary for writing the next chapter of history of arms control, alongside our EU partners, and remain attentive inter alia to French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent call on Europeans to engage in international arms control, as well as to the sustained effort of Germany, as my colleague Heiko Maas has put it, to close a ‘blind spot’ in the international rules-based order through the Missile Dialogue Initiative.
The coronavirus pandemic must be defeated, but it is our duty to think of the world of tomorrow. A better world in which multilateralism saves arms control; and arms control saves multilateralism.
Tomáš Petříček is the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev sign the INF Treaty in 1987. Courtesy of the US Department of Defense.