By Farah Sonde
As the Center’s Communications Associate, I try to absorb as much of the current dialogue on arms control as humanly possible. The tense situation resulting from Russia’s use of nuclear threats to facilitate its aggression has set the arms control debate on fire in a way our field of work hasn’t seen in years, but a particular issue has intrigued me recently.
In response to Russia suspending implementation of certain provisions in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the prevailing sentiment is concern: not over the nuclear blackmail, but over the absence of a treaty to replace New START. This could beg the question, “well, DUH! Why wouldn’t the Russians use New START as leverage when they are nearing desperation?”
Even though we are far from the death of arms control — much less the death of New START — alarmists have been quick to cite Russia’s policies as a stake to the heart of arms control. So, if arms control doesn’t work amidst conflict, is it obsolete? Is it time to ditch non-proliferation and embrace the nuclear modernization program? The problem here lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of arms control itself, that arms control and tensions between nuclear powers are mutually exclusive.
Ever since nuclear weapons were invented, we have worked with our gravest enemies to pull ourselves from the brink. The proliferation of nuclear weapons in the 1900s may seem synonymous with the intensification of the Cold War, but many major nuclear arms treaties were born from increasing tensions and conflict. When the “Space Race” was heating up with the pressure to develop ICBMs, the Outer Space Treaty was created, forbidding the testing or deployment of nuclear weapons in outer space. The aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis brought a sobering realization about the ease with which we can slip into war. After private exchanges between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy, the Limited Test Ban Treaty was created to slow the arms race and the process that led to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s (NPT) creation had begun. War and tension have not and do not have to be a guillotine falling on the neck of nuclear arms control. In fact, these factors often act as a wake-up call. Russia is belligerent now, but backtracking on such an important tool is far too early a call, especially when standing before a formidable record of achievement.
Rhetoric that ignores the useful role of arms control in mitigating international tensions points to an underlying assumption that arms control is a luxury, something we ditch when the going gets rough. Worse, it carries the implication that the benefit from the practice is the knowledge that another party is paring back its nuclear capabilities. However, the American nuclear program is at its heart a domestic issue. Our nuclear arsenal is something that affects the American people: our money, our health, our labor. Continuously evaluating nuclear weapons capabilities and whether the officials responsible for their use still deem them useful makes us fight smarter while keeping American needs at the forefront of defense. Stifling debate on whether nuclear programs like the SLCM-N are necessary in the context of Russian or Chinese belligerence means that we aren’t thinking strategically; we’re throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the defense planning wall and hoping something sticks.
Despite the claims that Ukraine is vital to its security, Russia has not resorted to the use of nuclear weapons. The lesson we should be taking away from the Ukrainian invasion is not that arms control is obsolete, but rather that excess in defense does not have a consistent track record for success. The greatest gains in strategic arms reductions were made at the end of the Cold War, at a time when fear over the fate of the Soviet Union’s vast nuclear arsenal was rampant. Leadership with vision understands that in times of uncertainty, the tool of arms control can be wielded most effectively.
Disregarding its historic role also implies that arms control creates winners and losers. “Winning” in arms control suggests self-restraint, and what kind of winner makes compromises? This is why arms control can be ignored in times of war, when politicians want to tack an easy win at the end of a political ad.
Transparency resulting from dialogue reduces the chance for miscalculation, which in a world of nuclear weapons would at worst be catastrophic and at best reduce our options for de-escalation. Moreover, it gives us a look inside a foreign nuclear arsenal and how allies and enemies alike think about nuclear weapons. Former President Jimmy Carter noted that when he was in office he would “imagine [himself] as Brezhnev” and “imagine what things might cause [him] to resort to nuclear use and what might cause [him] to avoid it.” Understanding fellow nuclear powers and what could push them toward escalation is an asset to our own strategic planning, and we would be foolish not to see this as an opportunity, much less a “win.” Done correctly, both arms control and non-proliferation benefit all involved — a situation in which everyone wins.
Within the increasingly tense political situation worldwide, it is more important than ever that the leaderships of nuclear weapons states emphasize the benefits of arms control during times of great tension, both past and present. The dialogue and transparency gained from even minimal arms control efforts have tangible benefits. Russia choosing to endanger one arms control agreement should not dictate that we do likewise when such benefits persist. Through our own example, we can illustrate that arms control is in a nuclear power’s interest and hope others join us hand-in-hand.