Build Trust, Not Missiles: Transatlantic Efforts in Upholding the Nonproliferation Regime
Half a century after the signing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the purely rhetorical approach of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and threats of forceful, “fire and fury” measures constitute the world’s disorderly response to the gloomy prospects of a nuclear armageddon. Much like during the Cold War, the lives of millions of people are at stake, and countries consumed by the nuclear race are spending billions of dollars to get ahead of one another. The undergoing development of hypersonic missiles is a challenge similar to that posed by the emergence of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles in the 1960s. What today’s world is lacking, however, is the kind of structural order the bipolar system provided. If back in the day the race was between the Soviet and the American blocks, the nuclear proliferation of today is more complex - and so should be the measures to hinder it. One place to start is confidence-building and risk-reduction on global, regional, and bilateral levels. Uncertainty and mistrust among nuclear-armed states are the primary impediments the Euro-Atlantic and global community is facing in upholding a sound nonproliferation regime. The European Union, with its experience in negotiating the Iran deal and the reputation of a trustworthy broker, can make a meaningful contribution to refining the outdated way we deal with nonproliferation.
In the transatlantic region, Russia and the United States are playing a dangerous nuclear blame game amidst an ongoing political and diplomatic crisis. Numerous nuclear transparency arrangements exist between Moscow and Washington, such as the U.S.-Russia Agreement on Notification of Launches of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles or the Memorandum of Understanding on Notifications of Missile Launches. Nevertheless, Russian-American cooperation on arms control and nonproliferation has been declining since 2013. Mutual accusations of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces continue on both sides of the Atlantic and will be difficult to prove or disband in the future without new, more effective enforcement and verifications mechanisms. An obstacle to achieving an agreement on those mechanisms is the lack of trust that contaminates Russia’s relations with the U.S. and the rest of the Western world. The number of channels of communication available to the two countries to hold a constructive dialogue on many issues beyond nonproliferation is shrinking with the reciprocal expulsion of dozens of diplomats. Reinvigorating the Joint Data Exchange Center (JDEC), designed to share early-warning data on missile launches and encourage information exchange among Russian and American scientists, is a potential avenue for restoring communication between the two countries through Track II diplomacy. JDEC was established in 1998 to facilitate the exchange of information on missile launches and early warning, with a potential establishment of a multilateral notification system for the launch of ballistic missiles. JDEC built upon the successful establishment and operation of a special U.S.-Russia command post, the Center for Y2K Strategic Stability at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado Springs. The American and Russian personnel monitored data that reflected any ballistic missile activity around the world. The center served to ensure that potential computer glitches in either nation’s missile warning systems did no lead to an accidental launching of a nuclear warhead. Furthermore, the center was equipped with direct telephone lines – a lesson learned by the U.S. and the USSR back in 1963, when the Cuban Missile Crisis showcased the disastrous consequences lack of communication can cause. However, the JDEC and the Center for Y2K Strategic Stability, as promising as they were, were products of the “Bill and Boris” era when personal comradery between President Clinton and President Yeltsin translated into major improvements in the U.S.-Russia relationship. This era is long gone and not likely to make a comeback any time soon, considering the current “worse-than-the-Cold-War” political climate.
Mistrust in persisting among former Cold War rivals is a long-standing leitmotif of transatlantic relations. There are, however, emerging threats that the regional, and global, nonproliferation regime has never faced before. Among the new classes of challenges to conventional approaches to nonproliferation and defense is hypersonic missiles. Due to their low-altitude flight, high speed, and maneuverability, hypersonic missiles can evade existing radar sensor technology that enables missile defense. By the virtue of these characteristics, hypersonic missiles increase the risk of inadvertent nuclear escalation, leaving decision-makers with compressed response time and increasing the likelihood of destabilizing countermeasures. The Trump administration has recently requested additional funding for hypersonics research, primarily to increase the number of flight tests and improve U.S. offensive abilities. This is largely a response to President Putin’s announcement that Russia now possesses an “invincible” nuclear delivery system that can reach “anywhere in the world,” as well as to China’s rapid advancement in hypersonic technology development. China, Russia, and the U.S. are all sharing their part in a dangerous upsurge of the hypersonic race. A recent RAND report estimates that there is less than a decade left to substantially curb the proliferation process, but the current trend is that of further acquisition, not abolition, of offensive hypersonic capabilities.
While some risk-reduction and transparency nonproliferation initiatives are already in place, they have proved insufficient. The set of confidence-building and risk-aversion measures introduced by the 2002 Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missiles is in need of reform. The Code fails to cover cruise missiles, which are more difficult to track on the ground or in flight than ballistic missiles, and, much like hypersonic technology, can circumvent defense installations. The European Union, which assumed the role of “universalizing” the Code and engaging in discussion with other states in the drafting process, can play the same instrumental role in negotiating multilateral instruments to curb the proliferation of new classes of nuclear delivery systems. Moreover, the HCOC membership is lacking the one nuclear-armed state on everyone’s mind today: North Korea. A regional, or bilateral, intra-Korean initiative similar to the Hague Code framework could help ease tensions, introduce some ground rules for the Kim regime, and lay foundation for future political dialogue, to move closer to solving the threat North Korean nuclear program presents for both transatlantic and global actors.
The North Korean case is a vivid example of the Euro-Atlantic divide on nonproliferation. While Americans view it primarily as a national security and defense issue, the European Union tends to approach it as a more abstract proliferation and normative compliance challenge. Reconciling these differences to make improvements on the long-term denuclearization of the Korean peninsula will take a holistic framework, which would have to engage the U.S., the EU, Russia, and China, apart from the two Koreas. The Europeans do not have any obvious, immediate stakes in striking a deal with North Korea in a way they did in the JCPOA. However, their reputation of an honest broker, a lesser military threat than the U.S., and a major financial and banking power makes the European Union a credible mediator of any talks that might that place in East Asia. Moreover, transatlantic cooperation can prove useful in constructing a regional normative framework with effective monitoring and verification mechanisms. Denuclearization, as acknowledged by many analysts, is on the table only in the long-term. More importantly, bringing countries into abolishing their nuclear programs requires an environment different from that of uncertainty, mistrust, and suspicious that exist now among relevant East Asian actors: the two Koreas, China, Russia, and the U.S. To create an attitude of cooperativeness in the region, it is necessary to introduce confidence-building and risk-aversion measures that would further countries’ belief that confrontation is more costly for national interests than cooperation, especially in the nuclear sphere, where the risks are extremely high for everyone.
The challenges transatlantic nations face in maintaining the global and regional nonproliferation regime, as versatile as they are, all stem from the lack of trust major nuclear powers have toward one another. The frameworks introduced by U.S.-Russia bilateral arrangements and multilateral agreements, such as the Hague Code, should be revitalized and adjusted to the new reality the world is facing today. In this reality, North Korea is not disarming any time soon, and new types of weapons are posing threats incomparable to those we faced before. The international community should take a pragmatic, realizable approach that encompasses confidence-building, norm-construction, and risk-aversion initiatives, bringing us closer to global zero, even if in incremental steps.
I would like to acknowledge the invaluable contribution of the 2018 American University Schuman Challenge Team, Suzy Clayes, Luke Theuma, and Kris Trivedi, to the research work that made this article possible, and to my understanding and knowledge of transatlantic cooperation on nonproliferation.