from Strength Through Peace

United States Should Rethink Its Approach to Strategic Arms Control

An intercontinental ballistic missile is displayed during a military parade in Moscow, Russia, to mark the 75th anniversary of the victory of World War II, on June 24, 2020.
An intercontinental ballistic missile is displayed during a military parade in Moscow, Russia, to mark the 75th anniversary of the victory of World War II, on June 24, 2020. Sergey Bobylev/TASS via Getty Images

The United States has a strong interest in avoiding a costly and potentially destabilizing strategic arms race among the major powers. Painstakingly negotiated arms control agreements of the kind pursued during the Cold War may seem like the way to accomplish this goal but there are formidable challenges to pursuing this approach.

The next wave of arms control will occur amidst profound geopolitical flux, as the world adjusts to the end of U.S. primacy and rebuilds in the wake of COVID-19. Triangular asymmetries in the U.S., Chinese, and Russian nuclear postures and strategies exist within a multipolar nuclear order that also includes states such as India, North Korea, and Pakistan.

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Progressive military modernization and technological innovation demonstrates that a strategic arms control regime that focuses exclusively on nuclear forces will prove progressively less stabilizing over time. The development and military deployment of cyber, artificial intelligence (AI), hypersonics, and space-based capabilities by the United States, China, and Russia, may destabilize arms control efforts.

Within the United States, partisan polarization hampers foreign policy and forecasts difficulties for future arms control agreements. Diverging partisan views on the nature of U.S. interests and the best methods to achieve national security objectives presents barriers to treaty ratification. Political polarization and inconsistency inject greater volatility into U.S. foreign policy and undermines the United States’ credibility as a counterparty in arms control negotiations.

For all of these reasons, the traditional model of bilateral, treaty-based nuclear arms control will be hard, if not impossible, to enact and pursue. Trilateral stability requires constructing a regime of reciprocal restraints and incremental measures that will benefit immediate strategic stability, while also laying the groundwork for more dramatic future progress.

A new paper for the series on series on managing global disorder argues that the United States should expand its conception of nuclear arms control to include a broader array of reciprocal restraints. In particular, the Biden administration should regulate intensifying rivalry through a series of incremental steps, including beginning negotiations to shore up the U.S.-Russia strategic arms control regime, building new habits of cooperation on strategic stability issues, establishing dialogues that can foster the development of norms and guardrails to prevent destabilizing applications of emerging technologies, and considering unilateral measures to enhance strategic stability.

More on:

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

Conflict Prevention