START Treaty
Envisioning a nuclear-save world: nuclear arms control, disarmament and deterrence

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Thirty years after the signing of the the START Treaty, US-Russian negotiations still lie at the heart of the global rules-based order to control and reduce nuclear weapons. Although recent talks between the two powers are a good sign, other actors have to step up their efforts to address the growing threat of nuclear proliferation. 

A military arms race to display power and intimidate the opponent – that was the security strategy of the Cold War in a nutshell. The so-called balance of threat, mutually assured destruction, was to ensure that any nuclear attack was stifled by the threat of massive retaliation, and that the opponent was deterred in advance in light of the threatened consequences. To halt this expensive and dangerous trend, the first bilateral nuclear disarmament treaty, START, was negotiated between the United States and the Soviet Union (Russia) thirty years ago. Today, two iterations of the treaty and one extension on, we can ask ourselves - what else can be done? Are treaty control mechanisms up to date? How can deterrence be credibly maintained? And for liberals in particular, who regard multilateralism and arms control as indispensable dimensions of their foreign policy, the question arises: what role does Europe play?

A new NEW START Treaty

While there are important multilateral nuclear disarmament agreements such as the Non-Proliferation-Treaty (which just celebrated its 50th anniversary last year), the debate about nuclear disarmament and arms control has always circled back to Russia and the United States. Together, the US and Russia own more than 90% of all nuclear warheads worldwide. This explains why bilateral agreements between the two are vital, albeit not exclusively decisive for a nuclear-free, or nuclear-save, world. Important factors to consider are the development of new weapon technologies and the constant struggle between disarmament and deterrence, the growing concern about other nuclear powers or countries trying to become one, and the strengthening of international players that challenge the world order. The topic remains complex and calls for action on all sides. Including Germany and the EU.

Just this Wednesday, bilateral talks between the US and Russian officials about a follow-on nuclear disarmament treaty continued, after presidents Biden and Putin announced the continuation of disarmament discussions in Geneva one month prior. Under the Trump administration, negotiations almost failed completely; now, with a change in presidency, also the approach to bilateral negotiations shifted and a new regime (hopefully) will be agreed on. A positive development, especially considering the recent deterioration of arms control regimes (see the withdrawal of the INF treaty, intermediate-range nuclear forces, in 2019 as just one example). Notwithstanding, numerous points of contention remain, for instance the discussion on second-strike capability and – increasingly important in the future – the role of China.   

Transparency and trust as key to succes

A crucial element of successful nuclear disarmament is the maintenance of a credible deterrence (or, second-strike capacity). A too-strong missile defence shield or unbalanced conventional force on one side may affect the willingness to further reduce nuclear weapons and induce further development of weapon technologies on the other (see for instance Russia’s recent testing of a hypersonic cruise missile). Thus, transparency and trust are key to the process, elements which are brought about via  control mechanisms, so-called confidence building measures, an integral part of long-term strategic disarmament. Transparency allows for verification of each other’s compliance with treaty agreements while at the same time provides proof of continued strength which is necessary to uphold a healthy deterrence equilibrium.

Now What?

Recognising the need for long-term strategic nuclear disarmament and at the same time the complexity of the issue, a number of actors and actions need to come together. While the role of Russia and the United States is more or less clear (the Western world expects a new New START treaty), emerging actors such as the EU can and should play a bigger part, especially in their capacity to be more neutral than the security alliance NATO can ever be. Especially in achieving trust and transparency, there is a key role for the EU to play.

In recent years, the EU has continuously refined its common foreign, security and defence position and tried to establish itself as a player in international relations, also when it comes to topics such as nuclear disarmament. This became particularly apparent during the negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) and in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from this agreement three years later. Now, the EU is faced with the important and intricate task to get the US back to the table and find a new agreement with Iran. If successful, this position as a mediator can be momentous in negotiations on other treaties as well. The EU would be wise to further develop its stance and proactively engage in nuclear arms control regimes. To begin with, its last strategyagainst the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), dating back to 2003, urgently needs an update.

In addition to engaging other actors next to the EU, verification and transparency measures in other areas can add to overall confidence building. Monitoring through satellite images and ground-based radars, sharing of flight test data and regular on-site inspections are just examples of such verification measures. Implementing these measures and ensuring compliance is a major effort and probably the most promising management tool. Can other arms control measures (i.e. flyover monitoring missions as defined in the Open Skies Treaty) support transparency and trust? How can the EU create interdependencies by connecting other policy areas to nuclear arms control and disarmament negotiations?

Thirty years after the first START treaty was signed, it remains clear that bilateral US-Russian negotiations are pivotal for nuclear arms control and disarmament. Not only as regards to their own arsenal, but also as spill over and signalling effect to other nuclear powers. At the same time, other actors need to assume more responsibility, especially when turning to address the growing threat of the proliferation of nuclear weapons far beyond the US and Russia.