A comparison game: some thoughts on the future of nuclear arms control

by Thomas Müller

When asked today, many people would probably identify climate change and pandemics as the greatest threats that humanity faces. During the Cold War, the answer was usually nuclear war. Arms control was crucial to diminishing this threat. Over time, a web of agreements was established that slowed the proliferation of nuclear weapons and led to substantial reductions in the arsenals of the US and the Soviet Union. This web of agreements is currently in peril. The Trump administration proposes to remedy its alleged problems through a new trilateral nuclear arms control agreement between the United States, Russia and China.

What are the US arguments and how do Russia and China react? This blog post reflects on the comparison game – that is, the strategic uses of comparisons – that shapes the debate about the US proposal. The comparison game makes visible considerable challenges that a move from bilateral to trilateral nuclear arms control has to overcome.

The proposal

The web of arms control agreements has a multilateral and a bilateral component[i]. The core of the multilateral component is the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), agreed in 1968 and signed by 191 states. The treaty limits the possession of nuclear weapons to five states – China, Great Britain, France, Russia and the US – and commits these five states to work towards nuclear disarmament[ii]. The bilateral component consists in treaties between the US and Russia, the two biggest nuclear powers, that limit the scope and composition of their nuclear arsenals. These treaties are presently in danger. The US withdrew from the INF Treaty in 2019, accusing Russia of having violated the treaty’s ban on ground-based intermediate-range missiles. New START, which limits the strategic, long-range nuclear arsenals of the two states, expires in February 2021 unless they agree to extend the treaty for up to five years. Due to US hesitations, this has not yet happened. Should New START expire without a new treaty replacing it, “there will be no legally binding constraints on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in half a century”, as the Arms Control Association warns[iii].

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