Arms control agreements strengthen the national security of the United States by maintaining strategic stability among nuclear powers (i.e., lack of incentive for perpetrating a first nuclear strike). Amidst the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the importance of such agreements cannot be overstated. The nuclear security environment of today, while different in several major ways from that of the Cold War, has not changed so fundamentally as to render arms control agreements trivial, useless, or impossible to reach. Thus, a top priority of the Biden administration should be to lead the nuclear powers of the modern world to an understanding that maintaining mutual deterrence, stability, and a certain level of trust is in the best interest of all. Two recommendations are provided as to how this may be accomplished.
The end of the Cold War brought about a period of relative harmony between the nuclear powers of the age, the United States and Russia. Since then, this status has deteriorated. More countries have joined the roster of nuclear-armed states—China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel. With this came a parallel increase in regional tensions exacerbated by nascent nuclear capabilities and persistent lack of trust between neighbors. The possibility of nuclear terrorism also poses a new threat, and technological evolution intensifies these issues. With New START expiring in 2026, it is imperative that action be taken soon to renew new arms control guidelines that uphold the concept of strategic stability.
One recommendation for adapting to the modern nuclear security order is to emphasize multilateral dialogues among nuclear states. Bilateral agreements may also be made, and can be very useful, but nuclear capability is no longer confined to a bilateral world order. The presence of many nuclear players increases complexity and uncertainty, and consequently the importance of involving as many signatories as possible in arms control agreements rises in order to reduce volatility. Multilateralism is surely difficult, particularly due to rapidly deteriorating relations with both Russia and China, but this once again highlights the urgency of ensuring stable relations in the nuclear realm.
A second recommendation is to set qualitative limits, rather than purely quantitative restrictions, on nuclear forces. This aims to address the risk imposed by ever-changing technology. Limiting the range, speed, precision, or targets of different nuclear weapons may do more to maintain relative parity between nuclear powers than simply setting a limit on the number of warheads a country can stockpile, as this is not as straightforward as it once was. Additionally, as cyber-based launching systems improve, satellites and early warning capabilities broaden, and missile design ventures into dual-use territory, there is an increased risk of intertwining nuclear and conventional resources, or the mixing of conventional weaponry and delivery systems with nuclear forces. Monitoring these capabilities, as opposed to simply keeping track of the number of available warheads, would help the US safeguard against confusion during a conventional attack and subsequently sidestep misguided escalation.
In conclusion, arms control treaties are vital to US national security and must be reevaluated and renegotiated during this administration to fit a multipolar nuclear world with evolving technology. Complacency threatens global security without continued prioritization and pressure placed on nuclear issues.
Lissner, Rebecca. “The Future of Strategic Arms Control.” Council on Foreign Relations, Discussion Paper Series on Managing Global Disorder, no. 4 (April 2021).
Maurer, John D. “Maintaining America’s Nuclear Deterrent.” War on the Rocks, March 10, 2022.
Miller, Steven E. “A Nuclear World Transformed: The Rise of Multilateral Disorder.” Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences 149, no. 2 (Spring 2020): 17-36.