Urgent Steps to Avoid a New Nuclear Arms Race

By Countryman, Thomas M.; Zagorski, Andrei | Arms Control Today, June 2018 | Go to article overview

Urgent Steps to Avoid a New Nuclear Arms Race


Countryman, Thomas M., Zagorski, Andrei, Arms Control Today


For more than 50 years, the leaders of the United States and Russia have recognized the value of nuclear arms control. In the past two decades, agreements between Washington and Moscow resulted in significant reductions in both nations' nuclear weapons arsenals in a reciprocal, transparent, and verifiable manner.

Nuclear arms control treaties and the associated dialogue they fostered have enabled both countries to reduce and manage the risks of nuclear confrontation and competition throughout the course of the Cold War and beyond. Today, with relations among Washington, Moscow, and Europe at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, nuclear arms control is even more vital to contain nuclear risks, ease worsening U.S.-Russian tensions, and prevent a new nuclear arms race that would be costly and dangerous.

Nuclear arms control has been particularly important during past times of U.S.-Russian tensions. It minimized the possibility for miscalculation or misinterpretation of military activities and headed off unintended or inadvertent escalation. The harrowing experience of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 demonstrated the critical importance of effective dialogue. The maintenance of strategic stability is key to ensuring that U.S. and Russian nuclear policies are more predictable and less dangerous to one another and to the world.

Measures such as reciprocal obligations, timely implementation of agreements, and verifiable compliance with nuclear arms control commitments have assured the leadership on each side that the other was not seeking military advantage. Yet, should the nuclear arms control regime be permitted to erode or even collapse, such assurances would evaporate. Each side would be more likely to adapt worstcase assumptions and move toward unconstrained nuclear competition.

Arms control is also vital for addressing mounting challenges of nuclear proliferation. Should the United States and Russia enter a new nuclear arms race, it would be more difficult to prevent further spread of nuclear weapons. It would diminish the effectiveness of the regime based on the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which is central to addressing the acute proliferation challenges posed by North Korea and Iran. This would further complicate the maintenance of peace and stability.

The world should share concern that not only is further reduction in nuclear stockpiles difficult in the near term, but even existing nuclear arms control agreements are now at risk. Washington and Moscow are pursuing costly programs to replace and upgrade their Cold War-era strategic nuclear arsenals, with each side exceeding reasonable deterrence requirements.

Further, a compliance dispute threatens the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is set to expire in early 2021, unless it is extended by agreement of the U.S. and Russian presidents or replaced by a follow-on accord. Should the INF Treaty collapse and New START expire without replacement, there will be no longer any legally binding limitations on the world's two largest nuclear stockpiles. The consequences for effective cooperative management of nuclear risks and for nuclear nonproliferation would be severe.

Looking Ahead

In light of the challenging circumstances, Russia and the United States should pursue, on a priority basis, effective steps to reduce nuclear risks and tensions and to avoid a renewed nuclear arms race by strengthening nuclear arms control instruments. The most recent authoritative statements from both capitals indicate that this is not impossible.

The report of the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, conducted by the Trump administration, recognizes that arms control measures can "contribute to U.S., allied, and partner security by helping to manage strategic competition among states," as well as serving to provide a "useful degree of cooperation and confidence among states" and "foster transparency, understanding, and predictability in adversary relations, thereby reducing the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation. …

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