What’s at stake when restraints on nuclear powers go out the window?

Paul Meyer reports from a recent conference in Washington, where the abandonment of restraints on the nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia has policy experts worried.

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March 21, 2019
US President Donald Trump departs a news conference after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

With disappearing restraints on the nuclear systems of Russia and the United States, the atmosphere at a recent nuclear policy conference in Washington was unsurprisingly a mix of gloom and dismay.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has hosted a major conference in Washington devoted to issues of nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament every two years since its inaugural gathering in 1989, drawing diplomats and security experts from around the world. This year’s version, which took place on March 11-12, had 800 attendees plus another 400 participating remotely (and, as the convenors proudly proclaimed, was the first to achieve full gender parity in terms of speakers and moderators.)

The conference provides an unrivalled platform for policy wonks to take the pulse of current strategic postures and programs. However, this year the pulse of arms control was hard to detect. The gloomy atmosphere reflected the mood of most participants. With a background of the withdrawal in February of the United States from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia and the lack of any evident commitment to an extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits strategic nuclear systems and which expires in February 2021, it seems likely that the last remaining treaty restraints on the nuclear systems of these opposing powers will disappear.

Combine this with the failure at the February Hanoi Summit to conclude any agreement on North Korean denuclearization, the recent resumption of military clashes across the Line of Control between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, a major rift within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) community and last year’s US rejection of the Iran JCPOA nuclear deal; it is no wonder that pessimism on the future of cooperative security and nuclear restraint was pouring out faster than the coffee during the conference breaks.

One seasoned European diplomat described the situation as “worse than the Cold War,” with strategic dialogue suspended and nuclear powers moving away from pure deterrence postures and engaging again in arms racing (aka “modernization”) and sabre-rattling.

Having last attended the Carnegie conference in 2013, the contrast between the relatively upbeat mood under the Obama administration and the sense the arms control community now has of being under siege with the duo of Donald Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton in the White House was striking. I came away with particular concerns over four areas: the breakdown of the US-Russian strategic relationship, the current impasse in denuclearization talks with North Korea, the bleak prospects for the NPT, and Canada’s silence on the issues.

US-Russian relations

The breakdown of the bilateral strategic relationship between the two leading nuclear powers was a salient theme, with many participants urging a revival of the strategic stability talks that had been the vehicle for developing and sustaining the strategic arms control framework over decades.

The few Trump administration officials in attendance were of a different view — gamely suggesting that their policy line was the only correct one. A senior State Department speaker defended the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty as an exercise to “uphold standards” and was non-committal on an extension of New START, noting simply that an inter-agency dialogue was underway on this issue. A senior Department of Defense official from the Obama administration stressed that maintaining New START (and the verification and data exchange provisions that go with it) was very much in US interests. Former US Senator Sam Nunn, now the co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, decried that there seemed to be no political will in Washington to save the treaties.

“One seasoned European diplomat described the situation as ‘worse than the Cold War.’”

Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov reiterated Russia’s stance, saying that although the US claim of violation of the INF Treaty was a “fairy tale,” President Vladimir Putin had stated that Russia would not deploy ground-based missiles anywhere in the prohibited range unless the US had done so first. Antonov said that Russia would not get drawn into an expensive arms race with the US and dismissed allegations that Russia had adopted an “escalate to de-escalate” early use of nuclear weapons doctrine as “fake news” promoted by American interests behind development of “low-yield” warheads and new missile systems.

If these developments were not disturbing enough, a session on “Nuclear Command and Control Vulnerability” raised the spectre of cyber attacks on early warning or command and control (C2) systems which might prompt a “use it or lose it” reaction and put further pressure on crisis decision-making. A Chinese expert warned that when combined with shortened flight times of new hypersonic missiles and the conflation of conventional and nuclear systems the strategic situation was “more risky than ever before.”

Antonov and other Russian experts argued for a revival of the strategic stability talks for managing the increasingly complicated relationship. This call for resumed dialogue was supported by many participants who criticized the downgrading of diplomatic approaches to addressing the geopolitical tensions and sustaining strategic stability in favour of military buildups.

One supportive voice on the US side was Democratic Representative Adam Smith, the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee, who called for restarting the arms control process and re-opening strategic communication channels. He also suggested that the US can achieve nuclear deterrence with far fewer warheads. Echoing some of the concerns of the cyber experts, Smith said his priorities included securing nuclear command and control and developing US capacities for cyber and information warfare. He emphasized the need to work with allies rather than “badger them,” characterizing Trump’s “America First” posture as “a moronic foreign policy.”

The failed Hanoi Summit and the elusive goal of denuclearization

Steve Biegun, Trump’s Special Representative for North Korea, gave a keynote speech that downplayed the failure of last month’s Hanoi Summit between the president and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to yield an agreement on denuclearization, suggesting that the US was playing a long game and that Trump had set no timeline for negotiations.

Biegun defended not agreeing to any partial easing of UN sanctions, saying that this would only allow for new funds to be directed into weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. He said the US was seeking the comprehensive elimination of all WMD arsenals and facilities including all dimensions of the nuclear fuel cycle. This would require intrusive verification to ensure that a North Korean declaration was accurate, and that disarmament would be irreversible. He noted in this regard that the establishment of permanent liaison offices in the North would be essential in support of this effort.

Biegun expressed support for confidence-building measures (CBMs) underway in the demilitarized zone that had been developed between North and South Korea and indicated that certain CBMs were being discussed in the US-North Korean track as well. When challenged as to why North Korea would put any faith in an eventual agreement with the US, given the latter’s withdrawal from the JCPOA despite Iran’s compliance with its terms, Biegun side-stepped the question by asserting that the US was engaged in a much broader endeavour with North Korea, not merely a nuclear deal. Biegun defended the current approach of the Trump administration, saying that it was the only one that had succeeded in directly engaging the North’s “main decision maker.”

The Non-Proliferation Treaty under threat

How the current bleak prospects for nuclear arms control and disarmament would impact the NPT (the global treaty governing nuclear affairs with 190 states parties) and its 2020 Review Conference was an underlying concern at the conference.

Trump administration officials took a “not to worry” stance, pointing to resumed talks amongst the P5 nuclear weapon states in Beijing in January (although disagreement amongst them prevented the issuance of any statement).

The US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation trotted out the old figures of an 88 percent reduction in the nuclear arsenal since the peak of the Cold War without any reference to the current build-up or the absence of any arms reduction negotiations. He championed the US proposal for a “creating the conditions for nuclear disarmament” working group, although this terminology has now been changed to “creating the environment for” (an even vaguer term).

"Official Canadian statements on the key nuclear challenges facing the international community are few and far between."

The Russian ambassador was much blunter in his assessment, stating that if the strategic arms control framework is allowed to collapse, the NPT Review Conference will be “a disaster.” If the present trends continue, what results on nuclear disarmament will the nuclear powers be able to present to the NPT membership, he asked, noting that the NPT regime would be easy to destroy and difficult to rebuild.

The significance for the NPT of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (which currently has 70 signatories and 22 ratifications en route to the 50 required for the treaty’s entry into force) was fiercely debated at one panel. The French Foreign Ministry’s director of strategic affairs decried the treaty for its “divisive effects” and supposed weaknesses, while supporters argued that it was the failure of the nuclear weapon states to deliver on their nuclear disarmament commitments that had prompted the prohibition treaty. The upcoming NPT PrepCom in New York (April 29-May 10) will provide further evidence as to whether the NPT membership will be able to transcend the failure of the 2015 Review Conference and find some common ground at the 2020 meeting.

Canada’s silence

It is perhaps reflective of the decline of Canadian engagement in the arena of nuclear affairs that, to my knowledge, no Canadians figured amongst the panellists at the Carnegie conference. What the Canadian view of these developments consisted of was not a matter of concern for the organizers. Indeed, official Canadian statements on the key nuclear challenges facing the international community are few and far between. Despite urging from several Canadian NGOs, the government has not spoken out in favour of maintaining the strategic restraint regime represented by the INF and New START treaties.

Concerns over the deteriorating strategic situation had prompted the House of Commons Committee on National Defence to recommend unanimously last summer that the government take a leadership role at NATO to initiate discussion of these risks and what can be done to counter them. Specifically, the Committee’s recommendation #21 reads in part “That the Government of Canada take a leadership role within NATO in beginning the work necessary for achieving the NATO goal of creating the conditions for a world free of nuclear weapons. That this initiative be undertaken on an urgent basis in view of the increasing threat of nuclear conflict…”. The government essentially ignored this operational direction in its response to the Committee’s report, offering up only boiler plate text on existing positions. Leadership on these issues within NATO, it seems, would have to come from some other member state.

Ostrich-like evasive postures are not appropriate at this point in time, when the risks of nuclear weapon use, be it from calculation or miscalculation, are elevated and the cooperative restraint regimes of the past are rapidly fraying. If some of the destructive consequences of the current impasse, outlined at the conference, come to pass, Canada will not be immune from their effects, and people may well ask: what did Canada do to prevent them?