Spring 2020

A Way Forward

James Timbie

This essay develops elements of an agreement to limit and reduce nuclear forces that would succeed the New START Treaty. The successor arrangements would be more complicated than the bilateral INF, START, and New START treaties, involving more subjects and more countries, as the negotiations consider each of the issues the United States and Russia have said should be addressed in a new agreement. The result is a comprehensive program of practical steps to enhance predictability, resume the reduction of nuclear forces, and reduce the risk of conflict in an increasingly complex world.

James Timbie is an Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is retired from the U.S. State Department, where he worked for many years on nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union, Russia, and Iran, including SALT, the INF Treaty, START, New START, and the JCPOA. He is an editor, with George P. Shultz and Jim Hoagland, of Beyond Disruption: Technology’s Challenge to Governance (2018).

As New START (New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), the last of the bilateral strategic nuclear arms treaties, approaches its expiration–which seems likely by 2026 and perhaps much sooner–the international security situation grows steadily more complex. The strategic forces of the United States and Russia no longer dominate the nuclear landscape as they did when the bilateral treaties were negotiated. Past success in reducing U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads has increased the salience of other nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons of other countries, missile defenses, and advanced conventional and space systems, all of which need to be considered in future negotiations. Looking ahead to a transition from bilateral treaties to more complicated arrangements involving more subjects and more countries, this essay outlines a program of practical steps to enhance predictability and transparency, resume the process of reductions in nuclear forces, and reduce the risk of unintended conflict in an increasingly complex world.

While strategic competition between the United States and Russia and China greatly complicates consideration of the diplomatic engagement with Russia and China necessary to negotiate and implement the cooperative measures suggested here, placing bounds on otherwise unregulated competition could enhance the security of all involved. At this difficult moment, international cooperation can help to reduce the risk of conflict and need not be deferred to a perhaps distant future with a more favorable political climate.

The objectives of the steps outlined here are to:

  • Reduce the risk of unintended nuclear conflict, as a result of misinterpretation of rapidly unfolding events in multiple domains with little historical precedent.
  • Promote equality and predictability, and thereby reduce incentives to expand nuclear forces in order to match the other side.
  • Provide transparency into the nuclear forces of other states.
  • Support nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.
  • Support the security of allies, partners, and friends.
  • Encourage further reductions in nuclear warheads, in support of a long-term enterprise to manage and reduce the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons.

While these objectives are generally familiar, the first (reduce the risk of unintended nuclear conflict) is adapted to our current circumstances. Those who negotiated the strategic arms treaties of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were concerned about the risk of deliberate large-scale nuclear attack in a crisis situation, and sought to enhance stability and provide for equality and predictability at lower levels of forces. Today, a deliberate large-scale nuclear attack seems effectively deterred by the prospect of certain retaliation in kind, and is therefore unlikely. Blundering into unintended nuclear conflict is the more likely scenario. The chances of conflict involving conventional, cyber, and space actions escalating to the nuclear level are not necessarily small and seem to be growing.

As for the second objective (promote equality and predictability), the large-scale strategic modernization programs of the United States and Russia now respect the limits of New START. In the absence of any regulation, however, each side could take steps to match the other in an upward spiral. A goal of cooperative measures would be to provide for a measure of equality at or below New START levels, avoiding incentives for expansion on one side to offset expansion on the other side.

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