A Multilateral Future for Nuclear Arms Control

By Nathan Powell
Contributing Writer
April 17, 2017

In 1990 the United States and the Soviet Union had a combined arsenal of 23,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads. Today, superpower arsenals are vastly reduced, to just 2,186 deployed strategic weapons. When there were only two nuclear powers in a standoff, bilateral arms nuclear arms agreements were sufficient. Yet in today’s world we are faced with Russia, China, India and Pakistan enhancing their nuclear capabilities and North Korea’s emergence as a nuclear power. Bilateral solutions are no longer sufficient, the future of nuclear arms control needs to be multilateral.

Rapid weapon advances have made multilateral arms control necessary. India and China have both commissioned new classes of ballistic missile submarines and accompanying new missile systems. China has deployed new solid fuel ICBMs. Pakistan is pursuing tactical nuclear weapons. Most worrying of all is North Korea’s rapid advance in both nuclear weapons design and missile technology.

These advances reduce U.S. and Russian technological advantages. At the same time, the number of deployed strategic weapons in the hands of the U.S. and Russia are at levels not seen since the 1950’s. It is unrealistic to expect the U.S. and Russia to continue to reduce their own arsenals and limit weapons systems development without the cooperation of peer nuclear competitors. Without a multilateral approach, nuclear arms control may not have a future.

Arms control agreements bring with them added benefits. They force participating countries to cooperate in establishing treaty-monitoring arrangements. They open lines of communication between their respective nuclear weapons establishments. These relationships help all sides better understand one another and reduce the chances of miscalculation or accidental nuclear war. Any step that strengthens communication understanding between nuclear powers is welcome.

Perhaps most importantly, a new multilateral nuclear arms control effort can prevent the outbreak of an arms race. This is why we need to bring India and Pakistan into the system of nuclear arms control. Pakistan’s hurried development of submarine launch capabilities in response to India’s recently commissioned INS Arihant demonstrates the potential of new nuclear capabilities in the region to trigger further weapons development.

The main challenge will be getting the world’s other nuclear powers to agree to join such talks. While the UK and France would likely be willing participants, the world’s other nuclear powers will almost certainly claim that the U.S. and Russia still possess weapons stockpiles so much larger than theirs that it is unfair to ask them to participate. China has advanced this argument for decades. When China was investing little in its nuclear weapons capabilities, it was a fair point. That era is now over. Technological advances in delivery systems and missile defenses are as important as sheer numbers of weapons in determining strategic stability – and just as important to address through arms control. The Conference on Disarmament is the most obvious venue for such negotiations but Pakistan’s blocking of the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty has prevented the Conference from making progress for years. It may be time to create a new international venue for arms control negotiations where progress can again be made.

The Cold War ended almost three decades ago, but the system of arms control it created lives on. Now it is starting to show its limits. Other nuclear powers are developing new weapons delivery systems and missile defense capabilities as advanced as those possessed by the U.S. and Russia. These technologies have the potential to spark a new nuclear arms race. We need a new system of multilateral arms control to limit competition and foster stability for the sake of a safer future for our children and generations to come.

Nathan Powell is a second year master's candidate studying International Affairs at the Elliott School at George Washington University. He is also a research assistant with the Nuclear Security Working Group.

Picture licensed under CC-BY-2.5.

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