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Nuclear Disarmament: Thinking Outside the Silo

Viewpoint by Patricia Lewis

Image credit: Screenshot from Chatham House.

This article outlines Chatham House’s new approach to mapping the complexity of nuclear arms control. It was originally published on Chatham House's 'THE WORLD TODAY' on April 2, 2021, and is being reproduced for the information of our readers.

LONDON (THE WORLD TODAY) — Every five years since 1970 diplomats and arms control experts have gathered to review progress – or lack of it – in the disarmament process enshrined in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The latest review conference, which was scheduled for May 2020, was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. [2021-04-03]

This postponement is a silver lining behind a very dark cloud made up of the pandemic and several looming nuclear crises. It has bought time and with that time a new administration in Washington, one that is likely to be more open to multilateral efforts, pragmatic compromise and cooperative solutions.

The delay has also meant that the United States and Russia have more time to address – and perhaps even fix – the wider breakdown in the arms control treaty structure that is now at a tipping point. 

President Trump, citing Russian non-compliance, withdrew from the INF Treaty, which banned the use of short and intermediate-range land-based missiles, as well as the Open Skies Treaty, which allowed the countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to conduct surveillance flights over each other’s territory to ensure openness about military preparations and activities. 

Russia mirrored the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty – and so that treaty is now considered to be terminated. Moscow has given the required six-month notice of withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty. 

Trump also pulled the US out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Since then, Iran has been ramping up its nuclear efforts, to the point whereby the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has sounded the alarm that Iran is beginning to manufacture uranium metal – a severe breach of the agreement. Iran has announced the enrichment of some of its uranium stockpile to a 60 per cent level – way above the agreed threshold. 

Meanwhile, North Korea is vowing to increase its nuclear missile capabilities and it is generally accepted that the Trump approach of face-to-face negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has failed. 

Over many decades, even during the worst years of the Cold War, Russia and the US were able to agree on measures to support the NPT, which acknowledged five countries – Britain, China, France, the Soviet Union (subsequently Russia) and the United States – as nuclear weapons states while enjoining them to negotiate to give up their nuclear weapons as part of a broader goal of general disarmament. 

At the end of the Cold War, there was extraordinary progress in arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation measures covering chemical weapons, conventional forces in Europe and a ban on nuclear weapons tests. In recent years, however, the trust between Moscow and Washington has eroded to such an extent that the whole treaty structure is fraying.

In 2020, to address the deteriorating situation, the US and Russia began to talk about how to extend New START, the cornerstone treaty limiting their arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons, and how to create common understandings on strategic stability and military doctrines and how to broaden the arms control agenda. Uppermost on the Trump agenda at that time was including China in the nuclear arms control process. 

The inclusion of China, however, was a non-starter. China insists that it will not join such an initiative until the US and Russia have decreased the numbers of nuclear weapons – the total inventory of which is estimated at 5,800 and 6,372 in 2020, respectively – down to China’s level, estimated at 320 in 2020.  France and Britain remain at similar levels to China, despite the UK’s recent announcement to reverse its commitment to a lowered cap on numbers. Meanwhile, military competition is escalating in outer space, while in cyberspace several countries are believed to have conducted attacks on other countries’ critical infrastructure. Chemical weapons have been used by Russia as weapons of assassination in Britain and Russia.

Finally, three nuclear-armed states – India, Israel and Pakistan – have never joined the NPT. Measures to prevent crises escalating between India and Pakistan have been put in place, thus reducing the threat of regional nuclear war, but in the Middle East, a  zone free of weapons of mass destruction remains elusive. 

Against this disturbing backdrop, only two days after the inauguration of  President Joe Biden a new nuclear weapons treaty came into force. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was negotiated in 2017 to spur the nuclear disarmament process that had been enshrined in the NPT.  A few days later, the US and Russia announced their decision to extend New START for a further five years.

The TPNW brought new hope to the nuclear disarmament discourse and generated innovative ideas through a human security approach. The nuclear weapons states have so far opposed the TPNW. They have pointed to its shortcomings – is there a such a thing as a perfect treaty? – and to the fact that the nuclear possessor countries have not joined it. But it is early days. 

The newly published ‘Nuclear Weapons Ban Monitor’ shows that the number of countries signing and ratifying the TPNW is similar to other treaties – 86 and 64 respectively, as of March 9, 2021 – and it is important to remember that the NPT itself was without the participation of China and France from 1968-1992 and is still without the participation of India, Israel and Pakistan. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty has yet to enter into force because a number of key countries including China and the US have not ratified it and yet it is still, rightly, considered to be a vital component of the nuclear arms control fabric.

In 2021, the TPNW may be a shining light of hope among the fraying nuclear agreements and it is worth keeping this in mind as the US and its allies head towards the review conference in August. One way forward is to change the frame of discussion. 

The debate over the future of nuclear weapons and what to do about them has become entrenched, with experts and governments mainly falling into one of two tribes.

First is the group that believes that nuclear weapons deter major conflict and therefore to push for their elimination poses great risks.  

The second consists of those who believe that the risks outweigh any possible benefits – and many don’t see any benefit in keeping nuclear weapons at all. They point to all the commitments to nuclear disarmament made by the states parties to the NPT and argue that these countries should have fulfilled their obligations over the past 50 years. 

Each tribe is convinced that they are correct and all they need is to double down on their proposed set of solutions, and the problem – as they see it – will be resolved. Instead, the opposite is happening.

We need a new way to think about nuclear weapons and how to deal with them. One way to think of them is as a wicked problem in a complex adaptive system. 

Wicked problems have several characteristics that pertain to nuclear weapons: there is no agreement on what the problem is; the choice of explanation of the problem determines the choice of solutions; there is no immediate or ultimate test of a solution; every solution is a one-shot – there is no room for trial and error, and nuclear weapons are symptoms of other problems. This means there is no one set of solutions, but rather many pathways to producing different outcomes. If we think of nuclear weapons in this way, can we start to find some different ways forward? 

Chatham House is working with Imperial College to develop an interactive complex model of the nuclear arms control system. This is no oracle; rather it is intended to reveal the complexity of nuclear weapons decision-making. In developing the model, we are calibrating it across different decades and seeing how historical outcomes can be produced by the model. It is our hope that reframing nuclear arms control in this way will allow analysts and strategic planners to understand the complexity of the range of actions available and the range of outcomes they could produce. 

Like the proverbial butterfly fluttering in the Amazon, a small step in nuclear weapons may lead to a large outcome in a complex system and vice versa, a large action may lead to very little progress. 

We hope that by thinking through nuclear weapons in a complex system, strategic planners will start to put aside their tribal differences as they understand that nobody has a full grasp of the problem and that nobody can be sure they have the answer. The wickedness of nuclear weapons means that there are no right or wrong answers in arms control – only good and bad outcomes. And we all know which outcomes we want to encourage. [IDN-InDepthNews – 03 April 2021]

Image credit: Screenshot from Chatham House.

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