Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)

Nuclear arms control and the coming world order

International arms control agreements are now in a special state of flux, corresponding with the shifting centre of gravity in the balance of international power. The full spectrum primacy of the US is dwindling, EU members are straining against the status quo of the transatlantic alliance system, post-Soviet Russia is no longer in full retreat on the international stage, China is increasingly claiming an international leadership position.

Therefore, existing and future international arms control agreements are being reviewed in a new light. Most recently, a telephone conversation between US president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin was held on Friday 3 May, during which the topic of “Nuclear Arms Control” was discussed.

This discussion is embedded within a body of reevaluations and redrawings of weapons control agreements in the post-Soviet era. These new developments have left their traces: as discarded weapons control treaties, the institution of new agreements, and new deployments of weapons systems.

The post-Soviet era has had two consecutive stages. The first is sometimes called a unipolar world order, in which the US stood without peer. There was still inter-state competition, but the US could regularly dictate terms even if it had to compromise on specifics. This was preceded by the ‘bipolar’ world of US-Soviet balance and is now entering a multipolar stage.

The most perceptive of strategists considered the unipolar period to be time-limited. The nationalists among them advised their associated states to act accordingly by laying the foundations of the emergent multipolar world order. The US, as the sole superpower, was in a unique position to shape this anticipated future. The new order would no longer be unipolar, but if the US played its cards right, then the circulation of the world’s economic, political, military, and juridical operations could be bound together such that the US retained a seat at nearly every negotiating table. Even better, the institutions it established could have become the medium through which political and economic exchanges transpired: so, framing and conditioning their quality and outcome.

It appears that the US has failed to achieve this goal, and that its ruling class was divided on key points. There’s been a noticeable change in the mindset of key thinkers as the power exerted by that country has waned. This transition is reflected in the content and even the title of the last books written by one of that country’s great imperial strategists, Zbigniew Brzezinski. These books are, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (published in 1997), The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership (2004), Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower (2007), America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy (2008), Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power (2012).

In his final book, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, Brzezinski writes:

“The long-lasting political domination of the world by the West has been fading for some decades. For a brief moment in the 1990s, however, it looked as if the West, despite Europe’s twin attempts at collective suicide during the first half of the twentieth century, might stage a historical comeback. The peaceful end of the Cold War, culminating in the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, signaled the final step in the rapid ascendance of the United States as the first truly global superpower. That internationally dominant power, together with its politically motivated and economically dynamic partner, the European Union, appeared capable not only of reviving the West ’s global preeminence but also of defining for itself a constructive global role.” (from the introduction to part 1 of the book)

“Therefore, the United States, with all its inherent and historically unique strengths, must overcome its staggering domestic challenges and reorient its drifting foreign policy in order to recapture the admiration of the world and revive its systemic primacy.” (intro to Part 2)

“If America falters” there’s unlikely to be “the ‘coronation’ of an effective global successor. No single power will be ready by then to exercise the role that the world, upon the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, expected the United States to play. More probable would be a protracted phase of rather inconclusive and somewhat chaotic realignments of both global and regional power […]”. (intro to Part 3)

“America’s global standing in the decades ahead will depend on its successful implementation of purposeful efforts to overcome its drift toward a socioeconomic obsolescence and to shape a new and stable geopolitical equilibrium on the world’s most important continent by far, Eurasia. […] America and its leaders need to understand the new strategic landscape so that they can embrace a domestic and foreign renewal aimed at revitalizing America’s global role.” (intro to Part 4)

The notions written about in the above quoted book express a mood and analysis prevalent in the minds of many US political figures. In 2012, the same year that the book was published, then US president Barack Obama gave a speech at the US Air Force Academy, stating that, “I see an American Century because no other nation seeks the role that we play in global affairs, and no other nation can play the role that we play in global affairs. That includes shaping the global institutions of the 20th century to meet the challenges of the 21st”. This was expression of intent for a singular global empire, the successful achievement of which was fast slipping away.

The bipolar world upon which the bones of old armaments agreements rested is no more. The curtains are drawing on the unipolar world. Finally, the emergent world of shifting balance between a number of tiered centres of gravity has prompted new considerations for ruling class among the world’s greatest powers. New international structures are being established: new investment banks, new leading cities, new economic relations, new commercial routes, new military deployments, and new agreements. Arms control treaties are not so much intended to bring peace for its own sake, but to express and structure the relations of international power.

So, according to Trump, during 3 May telephone conversation, he and Putin, “We’re talking about a nuclear agreement where we make less and they make less and maybe where we get rid of some of the tremendous firepower that we have right now”.

Also, “So I think we’re going to probably start up something very shortly between Russia and ourselves maybe to start off, and I think China will be added down the road. We’ll be talking about non-proliferation, we’ll be talking about a nuclear deal of some kind, and I think it’ll be a very comprehensive one”.

Russia and the US possess unrivaled nuclear arsenals with the capacity to reach and destroy tactical and strategic targets the planet over. No other actor has this capability. The state of tensions between them as well as bilateral treaties between them have represented the mainstay of global nuclear terror and arms management. Some other states do possess nuclear weapons, but theirs cannot reach all parts of the world as they’ve focused strike capabilities on select regions.

The world-wide articulation of the US and Russian (previously Soviet) nuclear arsenals has partly been structured by bilateral agreements that are now abandoned or coming to a close. The existing treaties are the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

New START is due to expire on 5 February 2021. As for the INF, on 2 February 2019, the US and Russia gave formal notice that they’ll suspend treaty obligations and the US claims it will make a full withdraw after a required six month notification period comes due. Suspension of the INF was prompted by Trump’s 20 October 2018 announcement that he intended to terminate US treaty participation.

New START has been criticised as a bad deal by the same US president. The treaty is “a legally binding, verifiable agreement that limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 strategic delivery systems (ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers), and limits deployed and nondeployed launchers to 800” (from the Arms Control Association). The treaty is signed by and limited to Russia and the US.

The INF was also limited to two powers: the US and the Soviet Union. Since Soviet breakup, responsibility shifted to include Russia, Kazakhstan, the Ukraine, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (the latter two are formal parties but they don’t participate in its implementation). Active parties are required “to verifiably eliminate all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers” (from the Arms Control Association).

The INF is no longer being followed and risks dissolution in the coming months, while New START is still in force but under similar challenge given that it’s a time-limited treaty.

In 2002, the US under president Obama unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. That agreement limited the number of missile defence interceptors in order not to undermine the balance of mutual terror instigated by the pair of nuclear powers. Following treaty dissolution, the US placed interceptors in Europe and the East Asia.

As the balance of power has shifted to include China as a great power, that country remains outside of the major nuclear weapons treaties. According to some including US president Trump, it’s not fair that China is not party to the likes of New START and the INF. Without China’s inclusion, so the argument often goes, you can’t provide for the sort of international guarantees required to manage a status quo of armed readiness.

Arguments given in favour of US withdrawal from the INF were, accusation of Russian non-compliance and China’s growing influence. The INF limited the US placement of potentially nuclear armed missiles in Japan and South Korea. Now, there’s the possibility to deploy nuclear weapons to East Asia as counter to China by threatening that country with greater means of nuclear annihilation: terror forwarded as disincentive but also potentially drawing China into military expansion.

The problem with the argument favouring China’s inclusion in something like New START and INF is that no other state, China included, has the quantity and variety of nuclear weaponry possessed by Russia and the US. If the New START limits participants to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on strategic delivery systems, then China might as well not be a signatory since it’s estimated to hold a little under 300 warheads, of which not all are deployed on delivery systems. In fact, the third largest stockpile of nuclear weapons is estimated at 300, in France.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), an oft cited institution on these matters, the 2018 estimated ranking of nuclear warheads was:

  1. The US with 6450 warheads;
  2. Russia with 6250;
  3. France with 300;
  4. China with 280;
  5. The UK with 215;
  6. Pakistan with 140-150;
  7. India with 130-140;
  8. Israel with 80; and
  9. North Korean with 10-20.

So, for any New START like treaty to be multinational, it would need to be based on an understanding of qualitative and quantitative difference between the nuclear weapons capabilities of participants.

Previously, the logic was to built around maintaining parity between the US and the Soviet Union or Russia. However, the notion of parity would mean that other participants would be encouraged to increase their arsenals to match those of the Russia and the US.

Here, I assume that there’s no chance that the maximum number of permitted warheads accepted by the two countries with the greatest existing stockpiles would be so low as to match those of second-tier nuclear arsenals in the hands of France, China, and the UK. Put another way, I don’t see Russia and the US cutting their numbers down to less than 300 deployed warheads.

The participation of China in an INF type treaty would also be significant since in its modern history their military has mostly focused upon the East, Central, and South Asian regions. This is why the Chinese claim that despite its size and budget, their military is ‘defensive’ in nature, which is simply to say that it’s not built to wage a global war but a regional one.

If China was included in the INF treaty, they may think the need to expand the number of long-range missiles and expand deployment via foreign bases and submarines in order to also cover their East Asian context from beyond the geographic range or technical scope of such a treaty.

The US doesn’t need to be as concerned with limits on relatively shorter ranged rockets because it has two oceans to pad the numbers with along with foreign bases and a spread of deployment systems. Meanwhile Russia has a very long stretch of territory upon which it can deploy long range missiles along with a multitude of delivery systems.

It’s currently less often mentioned, but Russia has also stated an interest in Chinese inclusion in an INF type treaty. The former Indian diplomat, M. K. Bhadrakumar, provides us with some important incite:

“When the INF Treaty was negotiated in the 1980s, although its leitmotif was European security, the pact also had implications for East Asian security. China was on adversarial terms with Russia at that time and joined hands with the western powers to ensure two things: a) Britain and France were kept out of the INF Treaty (lest that set precedent for China’s inclusion), and, b) INF Treaty also included Soviet deployments east of the Urals.”

Later in the same article, he writes that “Now, the political-military relationship between Russia and China is vastly different today. China’s nuclear capability has dramatically improved, especially with submarine-launched ballistic missiles. On the other hand, US’ relations with both Russia and China have become tense while Sino-Russian partnership is at its highest level today in history. Equally, Russia and China have common shared threat perceptions regarding the US.

“Since there are consultative mechanisms between Moscow and Beijing to mitigate substantive concerns regarding deployment or force projection, China is today more concerned with US missiles (and missile defence systems.) Nonetheless, China has to come to terms with the reality that any significant increase in its nuclear warhead numbers henceforth also concerns the security interests of Russia. It is entirely conceivable that Moscow will also strive to maintain its qualitative and quantitative nuclear predominance over China.”

It remains to be seen who may or may not be included as potential new participants of future nuclear agreements. If China is being discussed as one such member, I wouldn’t be surprised if the issue is also pressed on France and the UK. At the same time, although negotiations between North Korea and the US on a nuclear free Korean peninsula may appear relatively limited in scope, it’s likely part of the ongoing backroom negotiations between the great powers, China included, about the nature of military weapons present in various parts of the world. Here, the deal may be that China join some future agreement in exchange for banning of US nuclear weapons in South Korea. But, then what about that other military protectorate, Japan?

Suffice to say that the ongoing negotiations and treaty dissolutions are motions in the competitive ambitions of national ruling classes. The dynamics of present and future treaty formulations will illustrate the outlines of the oncoming though perhaps transitory world order.


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