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How to Multilateralize Arms Control

Thomas Countryman

A multilateral process is not the most urgent undertaking…

The Russian-American strategic relationship remains the most dangerous threat the world faces. It is far easier to imagine an inadvertent escalation from an incident to a conflict to a nuclear war between the US and Russia than it is to imagine the same between the US and China. (India and Pakistan are another matter). Therefore, the most urgent priority is to stabilize the US-Russia relationship at a lower level of risks, and a smaller size of arsenals.


… but it is important to send a signal that multilateral arms control is conceivable

The continued coherence and credibility of the Nonproliferation Treaty is at stake, given the frustration most nations feel at the failure of the five Nuclear Weapons States to move more rapidly toward nuclear disarmament, a reaction that was the impetus behind the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Extension of New START is a minimum condition to ensure a civilized atmosphere at the August 2021 NPT Review Conference. But without global confidence that arms control will be embraced by all of the P5, it will be increasingly difficult to restrain new proliferation efforts in the Middle East and Asia.


What incentives did the Trump Administration offer to China?

According to sources inside the White House, President Trump’s simplistic thinking was that China would jump at the opportunity to “sit at the big boys table”, to be recognized as being on a nuclear par with Russia and the United States. Of course, Beijing does not believe that the blessing of Trump or any other American is necessary to confirm its ‘Great Power’ status. But Trump’s thinking is not entirely delusional; under certain circumstances, one could conceive of China joining a trilateral security dialogue, if only to cement the perception of their superiority to the United Kingdom and France.

Others in the Trump Administration argued that the deployment of new US intermediate-range missiles in Asia would force China to accept an invitation to a trilateral dialogue. This was never likely to influence Beijing, not least because of the difficulty Washington would face in finding a willing host for new missiles aimed at China.

The US approach, based on the mistaken belief that Russia needed New START extension more than the US needed it, was to pressure Russia to pressure China to join, while engaging in a public effort to ‘shame’ China into accepting the invitation, with rhetoric that was aimed at the US domestic audience, but which had no resonance in Beijing.

There is no indication that the US ever privately outlined what China would gain (other than US-bestowed prestige) from a dialogue, such as a significant reduction in the risk of conflict between the US and China.

The US demanded ‘transparency’ from China as if transparency were a self-evident virtue. In fact, Chinese resistance to transparency (at least at the level shared between Moscow and Washington) is rooted in their view that their far smaller arsenal retains credibility as a second-strike instrument in part because of secrecy. Indeed, as well argued by Alexander Savelyev, insisting on a US-Russian level of transparency could impel China to adapt its doctrine and arsenal in destabilizing directions.[1]

So, how DO you bring China in?

First, it must be noted that there will be NO multilateral negotiations for a long time if Washington and Moscow fail to extend New START.

Next, it is important to state the obvious: it is NOT Russia’s job to drag China to the negotiating table. The corollary of this, though is not quite so obvious: if the US somehow convinces China to join a trilateral dialogue (as unlikely as that now seems), Russia should not insist (though it may suggest) that the UK and France must join as well.

Instead of repeating Trump’s insistence on a trilateral dialogue, the Biden administration will need to start a little less ambitiously, with a credible, private offer of a wide-ranging bilateral security dialogue with China. Such an offer should occur soon after Washington and Moscow agree to the higher priority, their own bilateral dialogue.

A look at the history of Chinese-American communication tells us it won’t be easy to get started. The official discussions under the Obama-era Security and Economic Dialogue, among military and civilian leaders from both sides, were stilted and unproductive. With insufficient history of mil-mil contacts, and the lack of a common knowledge base and terminology, the discussions were never likely to be as frank and productive as the same conversations between Russians and Americans. Even American-Chinese Track Two discussions of nuclear issues tend to run into polemics and conceptual gaps at an early point. Also, in my experience, Chinese officials can play even more games (or, if you prefer, be more ‘tactical’) than Americans or Russians in the simple mechanics of dialogue: postponing/cancelling scheduled dialogues to make a statement of protest on unrelated matters, or delaying scheduling meetings until the agenda is (in Beijing’s view) perfect. Finally, even with a new US President, the recent deterioration in US-China relations (as also with US-Russia relations) will potentially complicate the effort, even if it is advertised as a dialogue of ‘technical’ experts at first.

Despite those obstacles, I believe there is fertile ground for Chinese and American officials to plow. As with Russia, US officials need to explore further conventional risk reduction measures that could prevent inadvertent escalation of incidents. Tong Zhao has outlined practical discussion areas that – while falling short of treaty negotiations – could immediately reduce risk and gradually lead to more formal agreements.[2]

There is also a potential game-changer: if Biden follows up the statement he made in January 2017, and advocates for a US policy of “No First Use” of nuclear weapons (or the related concept of ‘sole purpose’), Beijing’s calculation about the utility of the dialogue would immediately become more positive.


And how do you get to Five?

It is understandable why Moscow views the British and French forces as part of the ‘NATO-3’ nuclear arsenal. But it is also important to understand that London and Paris don’t see it that way and continue to use their own rationale for maintaining an independent deterrent.

Washington cannot force them to the negotiating table, any more than Moscow could force Beijing. Nor should the US ‘hide behind’ them and discourage their participation in any way. Without a deep reduction in the American and Russian arsenals, they will be as reluctant as Beijing to put their relatively small force on the negotiating table. Until such a reduction occurs, there is no clear argument available that would persuade the UK and France to enter a five-way negotiation.

A question posed by TPNW advocates is relevant here: if the nuclear-armed states cannot accept the TPNW, is there any of them prepared to take a decisive lead in forcing a more serious effort to reduce arsenals? I am pessimistic that – in the next few years – Washington, Moscow or Paris will come up with a paradigm-shifting approach to the imperative of disarmament, such as the Joint Enterprise advocated by the American former cold warriors (Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, Nunn)[3]. But I am somewhat more hopeful that London (or perhaps even Beijing) is capable of such an initiative.


What tools can move us forward?

The P5 process

Since 2009, the P5 process proved a useful channel of dialogue. Its public results are unimpressive to many: the publication of a nuclear glossary required intensive consultation and helped to bridge differences in perception, but it was greeted by much of the world with a yawn. Perhaps the main value of the P5 has been in laying a groundwork, a common conceptual base, upon which future multilateral negotiations could be built. However, it is a process, not a negotiation, and it will not become a negotiation without significant intervening effort, particularly by Washington and Moscow. The most valuable thing the P5 could do before the 2021 Review Conference would be to issue a simple, two-part statement: repeating that ‘nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’; and re-affirming, without any qualification or footnote, their legal obligation to pursue nuclear disarmament.

The NPT Review Conference

Most diplomats define a successful RevCon as one that produces a consensus final document, even if much of the text gets forgotten even before the delegates have returned home. It can be an effective mechanism for reminding the nuclear-weapons states of their unfinished obligations, but it is not a decision-making body. Still, this year’s RevCon could help pave the long path toward multilateral negotiation if:

  • The P5 (particularly the US, Russia and France) stop attacking the TPNW advocates as naïve and dangerous.
  • All participating states focus on the core purpose of the NPT: to prevent non-nuclear states from acquiring such weapons.
  • The Conference states clearly, and the P5 accept, that further steps must be taken by the two states with the largest arsenals, but that none of the P5 can assume that they are “off the hook” and have no obligation to take action to reduce arsenals.

Non-treaty forms of agreements

Both Moscow and Beijing have made clear that they prefer binding treaties over less formal ‘political’ agreements, and with good reason. They have little patience with the dysfunctional nature of the US Senate. From their side, however, they will need to show some flexibility in the face of America’s partisan politics, and be prepared to use the kind of non-treaty mechanisms that Presidents Gorbachev and Bush employed. Here too, however, the American President is not off the hook. Senate refusal to ratify treaties is an old story. In 1905, Secretary of State John Hay predicted that the Senate would never ratify another treaty, a view many think is true of today’s situation in Washington. Of course, with time, his prediction proved false. The Biden Administration should seek to end the stalemate by aggressively advocating for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and any subsequent arms control treaty negotiated with Russia or others.


A final note: rhetoric matters!

The readiness of other states to join the US and Russia in more ambitious arms control efforts will be affected by the rhetoric of our national leaders. In the last years of the 20th century, P5 leaders largely stopped boasting about the strength of their arsenals, or describing (as North Korea and Pakistan are wont to do) their nuclear weapons as an element of their national greatness. The return of such rhetoric, first by Putin, then by Trump and (to a lesser extent) Xi, sends exactly the wrong signal to states that harbor nuclear weapon ambitions, and to the great majority of the world who will be unwilling participants (victims) in any nuclear conflict. Presidential statements alone cannot change the hard realities of security competition, but they can set the agenda for reduced reliance on nuclear weapons, and for a more successfully focused bilateral (or multilateral) discussion of ways to reduce nuclear risk.

And I end where I began: the primary responsibility for achieving multilateral reductions does not reside in France, Britain or China; it is the United States and the Russian Federation that must create the conditions for multilateral negotiations by making breakthroughs in their own strategic stability relationship.


[1] Alexander Savelyev, “China and Nuclear Arms Control” // Russia in Global Affairs, 2020, https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/articles/china-nuclear-arms/.

[2] Tong Zhao, “Practical Ways to Promote U.S.-China Arms Control Cooperation” // Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, 2020, https://carnegietsinghua.org/2020/10/07/practical-ways-to-promote-u.s.-china-arms-control-cooperation-pub-82818.

[3] James Goodby, “A World Without Nuclear Weapons Is a Joint Enterprise” // Arms Control Association, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2011-05/world-without-nuclear-weapons-joint-enterprise.


Security Index №5(20), January 2021