James ActonJessica T. Mathews Chair and co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
A new nuclear arms race cannot be avoided because it has already begun. President Trump’s apparent decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, while foolhardy, was partly a response to this competition—Russia’s development of a prohibited intermediate-range cruise missile, specifically.
The new U.S.-Russian arms race has, so far, been primarily qualitative with its focus on the development of new types of strategic weapons and the enhancement of existing types. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), signed in 2010, has largely prevented a competition in numbers. Unless extended, however, that treaty will expire in 2021. Unfortunately, the Trump administration appears to be deeply skeptical about using the treaty’s extension provisions and may even be contemplating withdrawal. The demise of New START might lead to the competition becoming quantitative.
While the “traditional” tools of strategic arms control cannot be easily used to mitigate every aspect of this arms race, they would still be helpful in moderating the competition in “traditional” weapon types, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, and even some new ones, such as rocket-launched hypersonic gliders. As recent events have demonstrated, however, the political will to negotiate such measures is sorely lacking.
Jarrett BlancSenior fellow in the Geoeconomics and Strategy Program at the CarnegieEndowment for International Peace.
A nuclear arms race is not inevitable, but it is certainly more likely than it was a week ago.
We reached this point through a series of terrible decisions. Worst of all was Russia’s decision to violate the terms of the INF Treaty. A close second was Trump’s decision to announce withdrawal from the treaty, apparently without even an agreed U.S. government strategy, let alone an approach shared with the allies whose security is most implicated.
An arms race can still be avoided by that most elusive of creatures: good decisions.
- Russia can pull back, not take advantage of the end-of-treaty constraints by deploying further noncompliant systems, and try to score political points with frustrated U.S. allies.
- China can recognize the risks of strategic instability and limit its own deployments, leaving space for future negotiations.
- European and Asian allies can further distance themselves from reckless U.S. decisions.
- Congress can use its oversight and appropriations authority to demand an arms control strategy instead of simply funding whatever noncompliant weapons systems the U.S. administration seeks (most likely in Asia).
- The United States and Russia can maturely cabin off this dispute and focus on negotiations to extend New START.
Carl BildtCo-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations
There is a serious risk that much of the existing strategic arms control regime will collapse and that we will enter a new nuclear arms race.
To abandon the INF Treaty is a gift to Russia, which has been questioning the treaty for years but still promised to abide by it, despite serious allegations of violations. But if the treaty is abandoned entirely, the Russians can forge ahead with nuclear missiles aimed at Europe, and they obviously have systems ready.
If the United States thinks they can answer this with land-based cruise or ballistic nuclear missiles in Europe, we will be heading into an even more dangerous situation in the years ahead.
And there are other issues on the horizon. What will be the reaction to the modernization of the B61-12 nuclear bombs the United States stores in Europe? And will the big agreement limiting strategic nuclear weapons be extended?
Ian BremmerPresident and founder of Eurasia Group
Not necessarily. Trump could easily be using the threat of a walkout to get the Russians to agree to compliance or “improve” the deal. Think NAFTA/USMCA. And the issue of keeping up with Chinese INF missiles doesn’t really hold water: the United States can defend Asian allies with air- and sea-borne weapons, both of which Washington can increase within scope of the existing treaty.
Granted, Trump doesn’t like treaties that he personally didn’t sign. So maybe we need to rename it.
Ulrich KühnNonresident scholar, Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
A renewed nuclear arms race is avoidable if both sides start addressing their underlying problems and divergent interests. As long as Russia is unhappy with the post-Cold War European security order, including NATO enlargement, and as long as Washington continues to ignore Russian national sensitivities, both will be at loggerheads. Europe will be nothing more than a passive and internally quarreling bystander in that conflict.
The new nuclear arms race will not be as excessive as its Cold War predecessor. New American INF weapons in Europe will not necessarily be nuclear tipped. But that does not mean it won’t be as dangerous. Instead, the new arms race in Europe will be much harder to manage for both sides. Conventional precision-strike weapons will blur the lines, dangerous military close calls will increase the risk of accidental escalation, and cyber warfare will expand.
Arms control and risk-reduction—bilateral or multilateral—could certainly help to mitigate some of those risks. But the current environment is not conducive for cooperative solutions. As a common saying has it, “the darkest hour is just before the dawn.” Unfortunately, for Europe, the darkest hour is still ahead of us.
Claudia MajorSenior research associate, International Security Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
The consequences of a U.S.-withdrawal from the INF will be felt primarily in Europe. The withdrawal does not cause an unravelling of the nuclear order in Europe, but it will accelerate it. Over the last several years, Russia seems to have built a qualitatively and quantitatively impressive nuclear arsenal to strike deeply, swiftly, and massively across the European continent—despite the treaty. Thus, the United States has a point when it doubts that the INF Treaty contributes to security. Rescuing the treaty would not automatically rescue European security.
Two other things are also true: Trump’s unilateral move is adding to the transatlantic divide. Many European countries are not following the same compass as Washington anymore. For the United States, the strategic issues that matter are not in Europe, but in China. This is a painful reminder that Europeans need to think about how to assure their own security and increasingly without the United States—not because Europeans want to, but because this situation might be imposed on them.
Second, ending the INF overnight creates unnecessary uncertainty among all parties—something no one in the nuclear deterrence business likes. Prolonging and modularizing any changes would help to create more stability during transition phases. But ending the INF completely kills one of the last pillars of Europe’s nuclear and security order—even if that pillar’s weak.
Oliver ThränertHead of the think tank at the Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zürich
A new nuclear arms dynamic is already taking place. Other than during the Cold War, leaders do not feel a common responsibility to prevent a nuclear war. The main idea of arms control—according to which, the security interests of the opponent always needs to be taken into consideration for the sake of one’s own security—is almost lost. Rather, heads of state believe that nuclear weapons are instruments that make political leaders and their countries look stronger and tougher. It will therefore be very difficult to prevent another nuclear arm race.
In the particular case of the INF Treaty, Russia has a strong interest to end the agreement to meet new challenges originating from China and other Asian neighbors. At the same time, medium-range nuclear forces would support the already existing trend to give nuclear weapons more salience in Russia’s military doctrine, including vis-à-vis Europe. NATO would have a hard time to find an appropriate answer to such a challenge. Stationing new nuclear weapons in Europe could undermine the alliance’s cohesion. Therefore, NATO should rather find ways to negotiate new arms control treaties that would include not only the United States and Russia but also China and others.