Strengthening the nuclear order
25 Feb 2019|

In the lead-up to each federal election, ASPI releases its Agenda for change: Strategic choices for the next government to help shape election platforms and public debate. This year the report contains 30 short essays by leading thinkers covering key strategic, defence and security challenges, and offers short- and long-term policy recommendations as well as outside-the-box ideas that break the traditional rules.

Agenda for change 2019 will be published tomorrow. The Strategist is posting a selection of essays from it on a range of topics.

Nuclear weapons are once more a focus for public and political debate. Great-power competition has returned, leading to more fractious strategic relationships among the P5—the recognised nuclear weapon states—and the competitive modernisation of nuclear arsenals. With the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in trouble, and growing uncertainty about whether the US and Russia can agree to extend the New START Treaty beyond its 2021 expiry date, great-power nuclear arms control is looking worryingly untethered. Some commentators are even suggesting that we might be moving into a post-arms-control era.

Nuclear deterrence—a doctrine intended to substitute threats of nuclear use for actual nuclear use—is under pressure from a range of sources. Those include the complexities of a more multipolar world, North Korea’s sudden elevation to the ranks of the world’s prospective ICBM powers, gradual improvements in ballistic missile defences, and the attempt to delegitimise both nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence by advocates of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (the Nuclear Ban Treaty). Meanwhile, reports that Russia is increasingly interested in ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategies suggest a wavering of the current norm against early nuclear use.

Technological developments are adding to the difficulties. New kinds of potential delivery vehicles are emerging, including hypersonic vehicles, air-launched ballistic missiles and long-range underwater drones. Improvements in the accuracy of long-range conventional strike capabilities and growing interest in low-yield nuclear warheads may be blurring the threshold between conventional and nuclear war. Developments in the cybersphere and space are bringing further layers of intrigue to balancing and war-fighting.

The challenge

The current nuclear order, at least as we’ve come to understand it since 1945, is fraying. That might not matter if a post-nuclear world were close, but the world’s in no shape to make the sudden leap towards nuclear abolition. The political will even to attempt such a leap is, understandably, in short supply among those who believe that nuclear deterrence continues to contribute in important ways to both global stability and national security. Full nuclear disarmament—spectacularly difficult when cheating even in small numbers could be strategically significant—lies decades away. And, in the meantime, nuclear weapons are too important for us to rely on muddling through.

The task before us is simple; it’s just not easy. We need to find new ways to strengthen the nuclear order for the years ahead. So far, our understanding of nuclear order has been based primarily upon William Walker’s synopsis of that order. He described it as two interlinked systems: a managed system of deterrence and a managed system of abstinence. The first allows a carefully controlled form of power-balancing between the central nuclear players in the interests of global stability; the second enshrines a broader pattern of abstinence across the international community.

It was an order defined during the Cold War principally by the controlled power-balancing of the two superpowers, gradual solidification of international support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the breadth and credibility of the umbrella that the US extended to its allies. The superpowers were, broadly speaking, separated by intercontinental distance, tolerant of existing anomalies in their different spheres of influence, and sufficiently well endowed with the resources necessary to address the command-and-control challenges of a large and complex nuclear arsenal. Perhaps most importantly of all, both knew well the terrible costs of great-power war.

But much has changed. Russia’s now a smaller, revanchist power—embittered by its own fall from grace and more reliant on its nuclear weapons to maintain a claim to great-power status. The US has soured on its own liberal international ordering project, and that sourness is felt across the spectrum of its international engagement. Asia has become a more important driver in global politics, but brings to the global table little experience of formal arms control. True, it does have its own version of nuclear order based upon a principle of voluntary self-restraint. Unfortunately, that principle seems ill-suited to the task of reforging a stronger global order, and may prove inadequate even in relation to Asia’s future regional nuclear order.

The NPT is also encountering headwinds. The treaty certainly reinforced the commitment to nuclear abstinence by the bulk of the world’s non-nuclear states, but it also included an obligation on the existing nuclear weapon states to disarm, making nuclear deterrence merely a way station on the path to a nuclear-free world. How long nuclear deterrence might legitimately last isn’t settled by the NPT. The modernisation of existing arsenals certainly wasn’t prohibited under the treaty. And, given the prominence of deterrence as a foundation stone of nuclear order in its own right, discarding it prematurely might do more harm than good. That’s also true of extended nuclear deterrence—the doctrine under which the US offers the protection of its arsenal to its allies.

Quick wins

Unfortunately, few low-hanging fruit are available in strengthening the nuclear order. Signing and ratifying the Nuclear Ban Treaty isn’t an attractive option. It would mean voluntarily and unilaterally forsaking the protection of nuclear weapons without gaining anything in return. It would devalue the concept of power-balancing as an order-enhancer—and do so at the precise time when Western alliances are most in need of strategic modernisation. It would play merry havoc with the ANZUS alliance and the joint facilities. It would sour Australia’s relations with a range of other countries—including Japan and India—that think nuclear weapons are critical to their own security. And it would weaken Australian security at a time when regional power balances are shifting profoundly.

Unlike the ban treaty, the old US–Russian arms control agreements have the runs on the board in producing weapons reductions. So, at the abstract level, there might be a case for promoting one further round of US–Russian nuclear reductions (for example, perhaps to lower strategic nuclear warheads to 1,000 from the current level of 1,550). In practice, though, relations between Washington and Moscow are currently so chilly as to suggest that they’ll be struggling even to agree on an extension of the current New START Treaty before it expires in 2021.

Similarly, with Kim Jong-un’s unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, it’s probably timely to push for final signature and ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by the eight outstanding Annex 2 countries (those 44 ‘nuclear-capable’ states that have to sign and ratify before the treaty enters into force). Three of the eight—North Korea, India and Pakistan—haven’t yet signed; the other five (China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the US) have signed but not ratified. If North Korea were to sign, pressure would grow on the South Asian countries to do the same.

The hard yards

Still, strengthening the nuclear order requires much more than US and Russian recommitment to existing arms control agreements. Even if there’s such goodwill, the world needs to encourage better engagement in the nuclear ordering project by the other nuclear players. And, with Asia’s rise, we should be expecting Asian nuclear weapon states to start bringing more to the table—if not more substantive warhead reductions, then certainly more agreements to enhance overall nuclear stability and improve crisis management.

The immediate need, of course, concerns North Korea. We don’t know exactly how close North Korea is to having a fully capable thermonuclear-tipped ICBM. We do know that it’s closer than we’d like it to be, which is why Kim’s moratorium on nuclear testing and ICBM launches is important. Nuclear weapons are—because of their destructive power—great equalisers. The world has watched ‘the bomb’ slowly spread from superpowers to great powers, and subsequently to regional rivals. But the existence of nuclear-tipped ICBMs in the hands of a regime with little equity in the current global order would be deeply unsettling.

A full-court press is probably going to be needed to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program. So it’s an important early test of what the emerging Asian great powers—such as China and India—might bring to the table.

Breaking the rules

Australia’s long been an important advocate of a range of nuclear ordering agreements, but we shouldn’t take for granted that a stronger order is the inevitable product of today’s nuclear uncertainties. A new period of nuclear disorder might lie in front of us. Not only might nuclear arms control founder at the bilateral level between the US and Russia, the NPT itself—the treaty underpinning the managed system of abstinence—might collapse. As the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review observed, we live in a world of geopolitical and technological uncertainty. One of those geopolitical uncertainties involves the possibility of a ‘proliferation cascade’—a period of rapid, successive, nuclear proliferation by states already well equipped to head down that path.

Australia, like the bulk of the world’s states, last chose its nuclear ‘identity’ in the early 1970s, when we signed and ratified the NPT and put aside our own underdeveloped indigenous weapons program. Compared to some other countries, Australia isn’t a repentant state. Still, when we ratified the NPT only the P5 countries had nuclear weapons. That number is now nine. Would Australian nuclear identity flip in a world that included almost double that number of nuclear weapon states? Not automatically, no. Sheer numbers aren’t a sufficiently compelling strategic driver. But some current status quo powers might proliferate—as a result of the perceived weakening, or overt withdrawal, of US extended nuclear deterrence, coupled with a simultaneous sense of escalated threat from an authoritarian, nuclear-armed, regional hegemonic power.

Those factors might well incite a deeply divisive debate in Australia about whether—and how—the country might appropriately respond to a sharp deterioration in our strategic environment. In our back pocket, we probably need a plan for strategic survival in a more competitive and disordered nuclear world.