LONDON - We are dangerously close to a world without arms control agreements. That is what some of the most experienced U.S. defense and disarmament experts are now warning, and a recent detailed report from a U.K. House of Lords Committee fully shares their alarm. The implications for the increasing risk of nuclear weapons use, tactical or strategic, are direct, immense and horrific. The disarmament process, on which the previous generation put so much hope, has come to a halt and what is termed “policy paralysis” has set in.
Whether these warnings are going to attract the urgent attention, and the action, they deserve is an open question. Of course in the Pacific Rim region the nuclear threat seems obvious and omnipresent, with unpredictable North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s ongoing missile-launching activity still looming over nearby states, notably Japan.
But in the West it is quite different. A thick layer of complacency surrounds Western opinion about arms control and nuclear risk, built up from assumptions that the basic architecture of global arms stability of the last 70 years still works and stays firm. Preoccupation with other issues, such as Brexit, immigration and global warming, blots out most media coverage of nuclear matters, even though one nuclear slipup could kill millions in minutes.
Comfort is drawn from the belief that the balance of mutual deterrence between nuclear powers still holds firm, that Russia and the United States — which possess 90 percent of the world’s stock of nuclear weapons — still have some sort of dialogue despite their antagonism (as in the Cold War), that the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been reasonably contained and will continue to be so, and that the full range of arms control and limitation treaties, agreed on 20 or 30 years ago, are still valid or can be renewed.
Unfortunately none of these conditions still hold true. It is just dawning on Western policymakers that the whole arms stability structure, far from maintain the balance of the decades since World War II, could soon become highly unstable.
First, there has been a vast deterioration in both Russian-U.S. and Russian-European relations. The high hopes of the Gorbachev era have been replaced by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ugly and threatening rhetoric. According to the NATO supreme commander, the two militaries are barely on speaking terms.
Second, the “game,” if that is not a misnomer, is no longer a binary affair between two superpowers but, with the ascendancy of China, between at least three. This vastly complicates the whole notion of balance, especially when advanced Chinese technology is already producing hypersonic missiles that no one knows how to intercept.
Third, while the global spread of nuclear weapons, much feared half a century ago, has up to now been limited, as far as is known, to four new countries — namely India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, beyond the original five existing nuclear powers, Iran could now be about to resume its path to nuclear weaponry — thanks to U.S. President Donald Trump overthrowing the whole nuclear deal with Iran.
If that happens Saudi Arabia has vowed to seek nuclear weapons and the tension between Iran and Israel could boil over, too. The danger of nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands would also be much increased.
Fourth, in August America is withdrawing from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987 and requiring the progressive destruction of short- and medium-range missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads. The claim, probably correct, is that Russia has long been “cheating” and building new missiles that could easily hit targets across Europe.
Fifth, new cybertechnologies are now of such power that they can disrupt anti-missile warning systems, send fake alarms, attack command and control systems and provoke “accidents.”
Faced with all these renewed dangers, some countries have put their faith in a new so-called ban treaty, simply demanding that all nuclear weapons should be banned forthwith. But wishing will not make it so, and might actually deflect attention from the gradual, step-by-step efforts to reduce international tensions and allow mutual disarmament to resume.
Next year will come a major review of the 50-year-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which somehow holds the whole precarious pattern in place. The treaty accepts the legal right of the original five nuclear powers — the U.S., United Kingdom, Russia, China and France — to have nuclear weapons as long as they make progress to disarm and eventually get rid of them.
At the same time it aims to protect all the non-possessor signatory states who understandably share a wish to halt the further spread of nuclear weapons, large or small.
That is the theory, but in practice patience is wearing thin. Disarmament is not going ahead. New weapons systems are being developed. Old arms reduction treaties are not being renewed or replaced, or even discussed. New treaties, such as the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, have not been ratified or have stalled.
The leaders of the major powers like to say that nuclear weapons are tools to preserve peace, not instruments to wage war. But to make that hope into a certainty demands unceasing statesmanship to build trust, as well as to verify reassuringly what each country promises to do in the way of disarmament.
Now, neither the necessary trust nor the necessary reassurance are much in evidence — which is why a new arms race is beginning and the nuclear risk is increasing when the world has enough troubles already and can ill afford any more.
David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations.