Academy Article

Considering a World Without Nuclear Constraints


The last remaining bilateral nuclear arms treaty between the two Cold War superpowers – the United States and the Russian Federation – is set to expire on February 5, 2021. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), negotiated in 2010, set forth strict, verifiable limits on the number of strategic missile launchers both nations can maintain. If the treaty expires, the world’s largest nuclear arsenals would not be subject to regulation or inspection for the first time since the middle of the Cold War.

With the number of nuclear weapons states increased to nine and the rapid advances in weapons technology further complicating the environment, it is a deeply challenging time for nuclear arms control and, by implication, for global peace and security. The end of the New START is part of a changing landscape: many other treaties governing nuclear weapons and related technologies have been abandoned or abrogated in the last twenty years.

As Robert Legvold and Christopher Chyba write in their introduction to the Spring 2020 issue of Dædalus on Meeting the Challenges of a New Nuclear Age, the “new era has slowly dismantled this bilateral arms control framework, with no clear prospect that it will be revived and extended.”

To stimulate discussion among policy-makers about the changing multipolar nuclear order, in the summer of 2020, in collaboration with the Hoover Institution, the Academy convened a series of virtual discussions with experts and former officials from the United States, Russia, and China to identify and explore particular areas that could lead to greater international cooperation.

An essential question connected all the discussions: will we have a future with nuclear arms control or a future without it?

The participants in the discussion series acknowledged the challenges of protecting American security interests in an unregulated nuclear world, recalling that the dawn of the “first” nuclear age – which lasted from the development and use of nuclear weapons in 1945 until the negotiation of the first arms control agreements beginning in 1970 – produced massive accumulations of nuclear arms, as well as countless crises, near-misses, and widespread global dangers. Polling research introduced by one participant showed that U.S. public support of nuclear deterrence combined with arms control and legal restraints remains strong along bipartisan lines, which prompted the question of how to elicit concern from U.S. policy-makers to address the declining support in Congress for nuclear arms control.

Since the United States and Russia today control the majority of nuclear arms – over 6,000 weapons each, constituting over 90 percent of the global holdings – the participants focused not only on the current status of talks between the two countries, taking place simultaneously in Vienna, and the impediments to renewing New START, but also on understanding and forecasting what future negotiations might look like.

“I thank the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for initiating serious discussions via Zoom about one of humanity’s gravest threats to its existence, a nuclear war. To me, these virtual meetings were a vivid reminder of the historic U.S.-Soviet negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev during the time I was in office. That memory prompted me to say that I had seen the Promised Land – a world without nuclear weapons – at Reykjavik, so I know that it exists, but I also know how hard it will be to get there.”
–George P. Shultz

The final session in the series featured presentations by Russian and Chinese experts, who provided their perspectives on the official priorities of their countries and the debates taking place in Moscow and Beijing. From one point of view, the discussions were encouraging because the United States, Russia, and China have the power to reduce significantly the role that nuclear weapons play in international affairs. Skillful diplomacy between the United States and Russia could extend the life of the New START agreement by five years, which would provide time to discuss and negotiate a successor agreement and allow for further reductions in the world’s two biggest nuclear arsenals and other measures to reduce nuclear dangers. Over time, talks on how to manage the new technologies could be extended to other nations with nuclear weapons, beginning with China.

An important outcome of the discussion series was the identification of a range of issues that might form the basis for official talks and provide avenues of future research and collaboration for the Academy’s nuclear program. (A summary of the range of proposals is online here.)

Read “Meeting the Challenges of a New Nuclear Age,” the Spring 2020 issue of Dædalus



Meeting the Challenges of the New Nuclear Age

Christopher F. Chyba and Robert Legvold