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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 34, February 1999

The Current Deadlock in Nuclear Arms Control: A Difficult Mutation to a New Era?
By Camille Grand


After an extraordinary decade of achievement in disarmament and non-proliferation between 1987-1997, recent events have led the arms control community to a serious reappraisal of the prospects for continuing success. Following the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in the spring of 1998, arms control has entered a troubled era. In Disarmament Diplomacy, leading experts have already put forward a pessimistic analysis of the current trends. Harald Müller raised with strong arguments the prospect of "the death of arms control"(1), and rightly denounced the "real near term danger that arms control and disarmament...will fall by the wayside, and nation-States may turn back to the dark ages of unfettered self-help, with the inevitable conference of protracted bloodshed even between major powers. And these conflicts may well involve the use of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons". (2) Going beyond the South Asian situation, the roots of the present setbacks can be found in the growing paralysis of the major actors in international arms control negotiations, including the United States, as pointed out recently in this journal by Joseph Cirincione. (3)

In the current situation, the issue is more one of "repairing the regime"(4) than moving forward. The overall deadlock can certainly be blamed on all actors: the five nuclear-weapon States (NWS), and the three nuclear-capable States (NCS), for their reluctance to commit themselves in key negotiations; some non-nuclear-weapon States (NNWS), and some non-governmental organizations (NGO) for raising demands currently unacceptable to the NWS, and for often preferring disarmament rhetorics to a trust-building incremental disarmament process.

While one can certainly share the concerns of the arms control community, it can also be argued that nuclear arms control has in fact entered a new phase characterised by new trends. As in every major shift to a new era, old habits die hard, and time is needed to build up new dynamics. Given this context, 1999 will certainly be a key year to rescue not only the NPT review process (5), but also to lay the foundations of a new era. To sustain this objective, the following section will examine the trends of this new era. The paper will then focus on the opportunities offered by the renewed framework, and the key role within it of transparency.

A New Era in Nuclear Arms Control

The 1987-1997 period saw major achievements in the field of nuclear arms control and disarmament, achievements, which led to a far more stable and peaceful security environment than that of the arms-race antagonism which preceded it. (6) It is unnecessary to recall in great detail the accomplishments of bilateral and multilateral nuclear disarmament diplomacy of the period. The United States and Russia have signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) and Strategic Reduction (START) treaties, which, together with unilateral efforts, have led to major cuts in the Superpowers' nuclear arsenal; France and the United Kingdom have joined this movement and announced reductions as well. Moreover, the NWS have accepted the end of nuclear testing by signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and have officially announced, with the exception of China, the halting of the production of fissile material and confirmed their commitment to a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) negotiation. New nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZ) have emerged in Africa, South-East Asia - possibly to be joined in the near future by Central Asia.

Last but not least, indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was secured in 1995 without a vote, together with the adoption of the now famous "Principles and Objectives of Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation". The NPT has confirmed its role has the cornerstone of the non-proliferation regime, and has also become an almost universal treaty with the accession of several nuclear threshold States as NNWS. Next to these efforts in the nuclear field, one could add the successful reductions affected by the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and the negotiation and the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). In addition to these diplomatic successes, the international academic and political debate has also produced many initiatives and proposals, hopefully paving the way to further nuclear arms reductions.

Successful as it has been, the quickly-summarised past decade has primarily corrected the major excesses of the Cold War - halting the nuclear arms race, starting the dismantlement of the enormous stockpiles of the superpowers, ending fifty years of nuclear testing, securing the non-proliferation regime in the post Cold War era - without addressing forthcoming challenges. The focus has now, gradually and haltingly, been shifted to a new and more ambitious framework, which can be characterised by three main trends:

  • The enlargement of the number of parties involved in nuclear negotiations,
  • Growing constraints on the arsenals of the NWS,
  • A debate on nuclear doctrine and postures.

For the last thirty years, arms control and disarmament took primarily place in a bilateral US-Russian framework. It has now become a plurilateral issue, involving more and more players. The three medium NWS are now increasingly involved in arms control and disarmament efforts, and their role should grow if the two nuclear big players continue to slim down their forces. (7) Beyond the five recognised NWS, the Indian and Pakistani tests have at least made clear that nuclear-capable States had to be taken seriously into account, and not only as future NNWS. Starting with the FMCT, future arms control negotiation will have to secure an agreement among the eight NWS and NCS. More troublesome to the five NWS, more NNWS are now seeking an active role in disarmament fora. This trend goes now far beyond the usual activists, who have long been committed to promoting nuclear disarmament (Sweden, Australia, Mexico, and more recently South Africa). Friends and allies of the Western NWS are step by step taking a more proactive stance.

Two recent examples illustrated this trend: the Canadian House of Commons report released in 1998 (8), and the joint proposal put forward in February 1999 at the Geneva Conference on Disarmament (CD) by Belgium, Germany, Italy, Norway, and the Netherlands for an "ad hoc working group to study ways and means of establishing an exchange of information and views within the conference on endeavours towards nuclear disarmament". (9) As unexpected actors burst in on nuclear talks, the NWS, which have just started a reappraisal of their own policies, feel uncomfortable (to say the least) with this intrusion. It will thus take time to find a new balance between the legitimate right of NNWS to have their own input in the nuclear agenda, and the desire of the NWS to move at their own pace.

A second element of novelty is the growing constraint now placed on the nuclear arsenals of the NWS. The combination of the already signed CTBT and of the forthcoming FMCT is putting an end to the quantitative and qualitative arms race, in a verifiable manner. Even if some loophole, such as sub-critical testing, cannot be avoided, the NWS (and the NCS) are now involved in a process aimed at the very heart of their nuclear capability. They can certainly preserve this capability in the medium-term, but they can no longer improve and develop it freely, almost as a matter of course, as they have done in the past fifty years. Moreover, for the first time, they are accepting the principle of rather intrusive inspection regimes. This might sound a little step, but is truly affecting the nuclear mentalities of the NWS.

A last point on the characteristics of the emerging new era: a growing debate over nuclear doctrines and postures is now taking place, involving all the major actors in the field (NWS, NCS, NNWS, and NGO). This trend has taken several forms, ranging from the various de-alerting proposals to renewed calls for a no-first-use pledge (or even a no-use commitment). Many NNWS and NGOs have been pushing in these new directions, and questioning the rationale of the deterrence policies and strategies of the NWS. The long-term goal is clear: undermining the logic of the present nuclear postures, and thus reducing substantially the political role and value of nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century. An unexpected (and unlikely) outcome is also a possibility: if the NWS re-craft carefully their declaratory policies, they might also legitimise the possession of nuclear weapons, precisely by accepting their reduced role.

New Opportunities Through Increased Transparency?

The combination of the previously stated three trends is moving nuclear arms control in barely explored directions in which:

  • Nuclear talks are likely to be increasingly plurilateral (rather than bilateral, but not truly multilateral) (10),
  • NWS and NCS are, willingly or reluctantly, accepting growing verified constraints on their arsenals,
  • Nuclear postures and doctrines of the NWS are increasingly challenged.

From a NWS perspective, a possible answer is a clear refusal of further discussions, and succumb to the temptation to block further nuclear arms control negotiation. Some leading figures in the political and strategic establishments are already choosing that option, including in important decision-making bodies, such as the US Senate and the Russian Duma. This explains to a large extend the present deadlock. However, from another perspective, one could argue that these new paths, once they are accepted, offer room for new opportunities to build a more consensual and stable security environment in the forthcoming years. If such an approach were to be adopted, most actors would see their concerns met.

The key element in this new landscape appears to be an increased transparency. Transparency is not a goal in itself but rather a tool to increase international security. It should certainly not be understood as opening a door to the totality of the nuclear facilities and stockpiles of the NWS, but rather as an incremental openness policy applying to stockpiles and doctrines. It can be addressed at first as a NWS process or in regional frameworks involving the NCS. At a subsequent stage, it should also, at least partially, involve NNWS in order that they could then have a better overview of the arms reduction and confidence-building efforts undertaken by the nuclear States.

Increased transparency would certainly meet many of the requests put forward by the NNWS. They are primarily aimed at checking the reality of the disarmament process, and at making sure that NWS reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their security doctrine and adapt their posture accordingly.

From a NWS perspective, such a process would not only be a cheap way to involve NNWS in nuclear talks, but should also provide benefits in terms of security. During the Cold War, the military planners feared transparency because it was seen as procuring potential adversaries a strategic advantage in terms of planning. It seems that these opaque nuclear policies now no longer increase security, but rather tend to undermine it. If a principle of reciprocity applies, transparency helps securing the strategic environment (as the US-Russian disarmament process has already demonstrated in a bilateral context). Among the five official NWS, as reductions continue, the need to have a good and verifiable assessment of each other's posture and arsenal increases and is required to facilitate further cuts or even to adhere to a posture of minimum deterrence. To a large extent, this logical appeal of transparency also applies to the NCS. Last but not least, from a western perspective, transparency is also favourable to the most democratic societies, which are already very open, at least in comparison to China, or even Russia. As a last paradoxical effect, transparency is also helping NWS government to maintain a certain level of support at home and abroad for their nuclear policies.

The means to achieve such an objective are yet to be defined. Transparency through verification of agreements signed is already familiar and has proved quite effective. The transparency dimension should be obviously relevant to debates over doctrines and concepts as minimum deterrence or 'last resort', which deserve further clarification. Germany suggested a few years ago a nuclear weapons register, an idea which is certainly still worth studying, and one which would go a long way to irreversibly establishing transparency as an essential component of the post-Cold War arms control era. Indeed, increased transparency is already a reality through the CTBT, and should be further enhanced with the FMCT. It is likely to become the cornerstone of future arms control agreements, as it can meet both the openness demands of the NNWS, and the security concerns of the NWS. And after all, as suggested in a recent article, is not the true "purpose of arms control to enhance stability and reduce the risk of war"(11), objectives every one can certainly agree upon.

Building a New Consensus?

In spite of some alarming signs, the current situation offers some opportunities to move ahead. First of all, the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan have (in a brutal manner) cleared the diplomatic landscape: there are now eight nuclear players, all of which need to be involved in major forthcoming negotiations. It is no longer necessary to include sophisticated provisions to incorporate them (as in the CTBT): the issue of the NCS can now be addressed frontally. Secondly, the growing role of NNWS will increase the pressure on the NWS to leave aside some of the opaque practices they have hitherto cherished. Thirdly, the involvement of western NNWS who previously adopted a lower profile can in the medium-term help find middle-ground options that the showdown between the NWS and the non-aligned hawks made impossible in the past. Fourthly, the NWS are increasingly aware of the emerging new era, and might therefore prove more flexible on intermediate objectives. Lastly, many actors have now come to realise that immediate objectives will not be met without a spirit of compromise, including a more or less successful NPT review process, an early entry into force of the CTBT and a ground-breaking FMCT negotiation.

In the medium-term, nuclear weapons are unlikely to be eliminated without major changes in international politics. Every objective falling short of elimination should however not be dismissed. A vast majority of the players involved still share common goals: avoiding the spread of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear anarchy; building trust and preserving peace among major powers, and within regional frameworks; reducing nuclear Cold War stockpiles; moving away from hair-trigger nuclear postures; limiting the role of nuclear weapons in world politics to very extreme and unlikely cases. Along the lines just drafted, a new consensus can be built. It will certainly not be easy, and some nuclear hawks and disarmament activists might oppose such an effort on different grounds. With strong political leadership and some goodwill, the shift from the Cold War nuclear era to a new, more stable security environment can certainly be achieved peacefully and on a mutually agreed basis, without jeopardising one of the Cold War's most promising inventions - arms control itself.

Notes and References

1. Harald Müller, "The Death of Arms Control", Disarmament Diplomacy, No.29, August/September 1998.

2. Ibid, p. 4.

3. Joseph Cirincione, "US Non-Proliferation Policy Paralysis", Disarmament Diplomacy, No.30, September 1998. See also, John Isaacs, "Arms Control in 1998: Congress Maintains the Status Quo", Arms Control Today, October 1998.

4. As was titled, the Seventh Carnegie International Non-Proliferation Conference, January 11-12, 1999, Washington, D.C.

5. For suggestions aiming at this goal, see Rebecca Johnson, "Use 1999 to Rescue the NPT Review Process", Disarmament Diplomacy, No.33, December 1998/January 1999.

6. For several views on this past decade, see "Disarmament and Security: The Past Decade", UNIDIR Newsletter, No.39, October 1998.

7. On this issue of the future role the three smaller NWS, refer to the following papers: Rebecca Johnson, "Engaging the Five Nuclear Powers in Disarmament Talks", Sixth ISOCARDO Beijing Seminar on Arms Control, October 1998, Fudan University Shanghai, and Camille Grand, "Next Steps in Nuclear Arms, What Role for Medium NWS" in James Brown (ed.), New Horizons and New Strategies in Arms Control, Sandia National Laboratories, 1999 (proceedings of the "Eighth International Arms Control Conference", Alburquerque, April 1998).

8. Canada and the Nuclear Challenge: Reducing the Political Value of Nuclear Weapons in the Twenty-First Century, Report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, December 1998.

9. For more details, see the Belgian ambassador's statement (CD/PV. 812), February 2, 1999, and refer to "Geneva Update No.43" in Disarmament Diplomacy, No.33.

10. On the plurilateral/multilateral negotiation dynamics, see Rebecca Johnson, "Nuclear Arms Control through Multilateral Negotiations", Contemporary Security Policy, vol. 18, No.2, 1997.

11. For an interesting middle-ground perspective on nuclear futures, see Robert Manning, "The Nuclear Age: The Next Chapter", Foreign Policy, vol. 18, Winter 1997-1998.

Camille Grand is currently a Lecturer at the Institut d'études politiques de Paris and at the Ecole spéciale militaire de St Cyr Coëtquidan and an independent analyst in disarmament and security studies based in Paris, France. The author takes sole responsibility for views expressed in this paper, which should not be taken to represent the views of any institution, in France or elsewhere.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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