US Foreign Policy

Norms for Nuclear-Armed Rivals

How to we find reassurance when a treaty-and-numbers approach seems out of reach for all four nuclear-armed rivalries?

Crises with nuclear overtones lie ahead. During the Biden administration, flare ups could well arise in no less than six locales, beginning with North Korea and Iran. In addition, friction is rising between all four pairs of nuclear-armed rivals. The troubling U.S.-Russian competition is the best contained. The other three—the United States and China, China and India, and India and Pakistan—are not bounded in any meaningful way.

Even though President Biden and Vladimir Putin have recently agreed to extend New START’s limits on strategic arms for five more years, the competition between Washington and Moscow will still intensify because of conflicting national security objectives, the advent of new military technologies, and escalation-prone cyber and space warfare capabilities. Meanwhile, in Asia, border clashes between China and India and between India and Pakistan are intensifying. Then there is the U.S. competition with China, where Beijing’s muscle flexing points to trouble ahead.  

No administration can possibly attend to all of these potential flashpoints, but the Biden administration doesn’t have the luxury of being an idle bystander. The United States has partners to deal with Iran and North Korea. The four nuclear-armed rivalries each demand attention. It would help if a well-functioning multilateral forum could help dampen down rising nuclear danger, but one doesn’t exist and there is no conceptual basis on how best to proceed.

A norms-based strategy to reduce nuclear danger can succeed even in the absence of new treaty making and multilateral numerical limitations.

To complicate matters further, there is profound disagreement within the United States about how best to deal with rising danger on multiple fronts. Abolitionists want what geopolitical conditions disallow. Arms controllers are attached to treaties and numerical reductions, but the geometry of nuclear competition–with all four rivalries embedded in two inter-locking triangular competitions—does not lend itself to multilateral treaty and numerical approaches. Deterrence strategists seek freedom of action and more credible threats to deter. Their approach has internal logic, because when nuclear capabilities fail to threaten, they fail to deter. But it also increases nuclear danger, especially when accompanied by a preference to ditch arms control agreements. As threats to use nuclear weapons become more credible, dangers rise and measures of reassurance become more necessary to guard against actual use.

Deterrence has always needed to be paired with arms control because deterrence alone is far too risky. Deterrence doesn’t prevent accidents and miscalculation. Nor has deterrence prevented serious crises and limited wars between nuclear-armed states; two have already occurred and a third is in the offing. Deterrence without arms control makes crises more dangerous. Deterrence needs reassurance measures to prevent mushroom clouds.

How, then, do we find reassurance when a treaty- and numbers-based approach seems well out of reach for all four nuclear-armed rivalries? The answer lies in reinforcing and extending key norms. The most critical norm, now three-quarters-of-a-century old, is against the use of nuclear weapons in warfare. The norm of not testing nuclear weapons reinforces the norm of no use. States regularly test other weapons of warfare, and they test missiles that carry nuclear weapons. But responsible possessors of nuclear weapons don’t test them. Other norms remain absolutely crucial, especially that of nuclear nonproliferation.

A norms-based strategy to reduce nuclear danger can succeed even in the absence of new treaty making and multilateral numerical limitations. Norms have longer staying power than treaties and a better track record than deterrence. When treaties are cast aside and when deterrence breaks down, the norm of non-use is the last barrier that stands between us and mushroom clouds.

A multilateral approach to strengthen norms is essential in light of the crises that lie ahead. Beijing is likely to join in this effort. It can succeed because all rivals can derive benefits from strengthening norms and because no rival wants to open the Gates of Hell by crossing the nuclear threshold first, regardless of declarations of readiness, hints or threats to do so. It’s also the most economical way to expend limited U.S. diplomatic capital to reduce nuclear dangers rising on multiple fronts. A diplomatic strategy to strengthen key norms has another significant advantage: unlike treaties, it can succeed even at a time of intense partisanship in the United States.

To be sure, any diplomatic strategy to deal with multiple international rivalries faces daunting challenges. The last time the United States tried, Secretaries of State Charles Evans Hughes and Henry L. Stimson managed to convince major powers to accept numerical hierarchies in the 1922 Washington Treaty and the 1930 London Treaty, respectively. Back then, ocean spanning naval combatants carrying heavy guns were the equivalent of strategic forces. The tiered ratios crafted by Hughes and Stimson bought time, but ultimately failed. They were widely circumvented, undermined by the advent of new military technologies in the form of the submarine and the aircraft carrier, and then sunk entirely by the rising ambitions of Imperial Japan and Germany.

A norm-based approach requires the engagement of all four nuclear-armed rivalries because they are interconnected in some way.

Devising and sustaining numerical hierarchies among nuclear-armed rivals hasn’t gotten any easier. Only Washington and Moscow have experience in stabilizing a dangerous nuclear rivalry by means of treaties and numbers. China, India and Pakistan don’t do bilateral arms control and won’t agree to a numerical hierarchy in triangular or multilateral negotiations. The Trump administration’s pursuit of U.S., Russian and Chinese arms control was a fruitless counting exercise that didn’t begin to tackle nuclear danger. It was bound to fail because Beijing wouldn’t accept second-class status. A norms-building approach to reduce nuclear danger has greater promise than other alternatives because norms, unlike numbers, aren’t hierarchical; they apply to everyone.

What forum might best advance this agenda? Discussions at the 65-member Conference on Disarmament in Geneva are moribund. Convening the Permanent Five members of the Security Council would be redolent of the Cold War. Two of the Five – Great Britain and France – would bring savvy and helpful ideas to multilateral negotiations, but they do not have pressing disputes and their nuclear forces threaten no one. Besides, P-5 discussions would have no telling effect on Asia’s nuclear rivalries

A norm-based approach requires the engagement of all four nuclear-armed rivalries because they are interconnected in some way. The United States and Russia worry about China’s trajectory. China engages in border clashes with India, and India spars with Pakistan along their disputed border. The most dynamic rivalries are in Asia, where nuclear arsenals are growing in China, India and Pakistan. Even so, China doesn’t deign to talk to India about nuclear issues, and India has cold shouldered Pakistan.

Bilateral diplomacy is in the doldrums for every nuclear-armed rivalry. A multilateral approach might actually open doors for bilateral talks that are now closed or barely ajar. Washington and Moscow would bring much useful experience to multilateral discussions on norm-building. Even though Great Britain and France are not engaged in nuclear rivalries, they could help steer useful outcomes. India and Pakistan would welcome seats at this high table. China is unlikely to absent itself from talks devoted to norms promoting responsible possession of nuclear weapons, making seven participants in all.

One necessary ground rule for multilateral talks on norm-strengthening measures would be to prohibit bilateral disputes from being raised in this forum. Another ground rule would be the exclusion of Israel and North Korea since their inclusion would complicate matters even more.

Washington and Moscow have proven that geopolitical and ideological foes can avoid mushroom clouds.

The heart of any agenda to reduce nuclear danger is reaffirming and extending norms against the use of nuclear weapons in warfare and moratoria on testing. Toward these ends, participants might usefully reaffirm the canonical pledge by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Codes of conduct have applicability for all nuclear-armed rivals. The United States and Russia have negotiated them to prevent dangerous military practices at sea, in the air, and for ground forces operating in close proximity, but these agreements have fallen on hard times, mirroring the bilateral relationship. The other three nuclear rivalries have barely discussed measures that could evolve into codes of conduct. Multilateral conversations about avoiding dangerous military practices might prompt new bilateral agreements as well as the reaffirmation of U.S.-Russian codes of conduct.

Washington and Moscow have proven that geopolitical and ideological foes can avoid mushroom clouds. They have done so by complementing deterrence with reassurance in the form of arms control. Other nuclear-armed rivals are pursuing deterrence without reassurance, a formula that makes future crises more dangerous. Every nuclear-armed rivalry has its own distinct features, but all are connected, and all could benefit from norms and codes of conduct that seek to minimize dangerous military practices.

Creating a multilateral forum that focuses on norms poses minimal risk and offers significant upside potential. Another side benefit to doing so is that the more we succeed in extending key norms, the more we will be able to reduce numbers, with or without treaties. Progress is possible on this agenda if the Biden administration is creative enough to pursue it.

Michael Krepon is Co-founder of the Stimson Center and author of ‘Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise and Revival of Arms Control’ (Stanford University Press, forthcoming.)

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