The United States does not have an interest in engaging in zero-sum competition with other major powers: the COVID-19 pandemic has also vividly illustrated the dangerous global dysfunction resulting from adversarial relationships over common issues. Even those who advocate a U.S. grand strategy centered on great power competition contend that some measure of cooperation should proceed in parallel, and two existential threats are frequently cited: climate change and nuclear war.
Arms control is not an end in itself. Even so, the Cold War’s historical record suggests arms control could serve as a cooperative bright spot in an otherwise rivalrous relationship. The United States and the Soviet Union concluded their first formal arms control treaties in 1972, and in the ensuing decades arms control negotiations provided a framework for regulating—though assuredly not eliminating—security competition.
The Cold War comparison suggests that competitors can work toward mutual military restraint. Yet the geopolitical landscape the United States now faces differs meaningfully from the one it confronted during the Cold War, and the future of strategic arms control will not replicate its past. Global power shifts have propelled China’s rise and enhanced its military threat to the United States and its allies, yet, in the realm of strategic nuclear weapons, Russia remains the United States’ only peer. Rapid technological change challenges strategic stability; meanwhile, growing political polarization within the United States will likely tie Washington’s hands, infusing any arms control agreements with partisan controversy, minimizing the likelihood of treaty ratification, and calling into question the United States’ reliability as a diplomatic counterparty. For all of these reasons, the traditional model of bilateral, treaty-based nuclear arms control will prove insufficient—and perhaps also impracticable.
In this paper, Rebecca Lissner argues that the United States should expand its conception of nuclear arms control to include a broader array of reciprocal restraints. American objectives should guide a pragmatic and creative approach to reciprocal restraints rather than allow legacy forms of arms control agreements to dictate their contemporary function. The Joe Biden administration should take advantage of this flexibility and move to regulate intensifying strategic rivalry through a series of incremental steps, including negotiating a supplemental or follow-on agreement to shore up the U.S.-Russia strategic arms control regime, building new habits of cooperation on strategic stability issues, establishing dialogues that foster the development of norms and guardrails to prevent destabilizing applications of emerging technologies, and considering unilateral measures to enhance strategic stability.
This is the fourth Discussion Paper in the Managing Global Disorder series, which explores how to promote a stable and mutually beneficial relationship among the major powers that can in turn provide the essential foundation for greater cooperation on pressing global and regional challenges.
This Discussion Paper was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
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