The second nuclear age proceeds apace. President Joe Biden is slated to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin this coming Wednesday in Geneva to confer on a host of issues, the future of nuclear arms control among them. Last February Washington and Moscow extended the lifespan of the 2010 “New START” accord by five years precisely to buy time and create political space for strategic dialogue of this type.
And this is all to the good—to a point. Generally speaking, arms control is a worthy thing. But not always. Pursued imprudently, it could impair rather than buttress peace, stability, and the national interest.
The Biden administration is anxious to ensure that all classes of nuclear arms are regulated by treaty. Otherwise, the Russian military might outflank arms control by developing armaments that upset the balance of doomsday weaponry but aren’t limited in numbers or destructive capacity, subjected to international inspections, or forbidden by international law. Such are the quandaries posed by this brave new world of great-power strategic competition.
The first nuclear age spanned the Cold War. It was a scary time, as anyone of, ahem, sufficient years to remember duck-and-cover drills will attest. Rival blocs boasted atomic armories sufficient to destroy civilization with plenty of firepower left over to make the rubble bounce. And yet it was a simple and predictable time by contrast with today, despite today’s much-reduced arsenals. Simplicity is helpful in the arcane world of nuclear deterrence. It is increasingly elusive as new entrants acquire the ultimate weapon, others hover at the edge of nuclear weapons status, and oldtimers realign their arsenals.
During the Cold War, after all, strategic moves such as fielding a new type of nuclear payload or a new delivery system could be judged by how the new ordnance would bolster—or not—deterrence of a single peer antagonist. The second nuclear age is a multipolar affair. There are more nuclear-weapon states nowadays. They come in various shapes and sizes by such measures as demographics and GDP. Different motives and incentives animate them.
Nor are nuclear-weapon states arrayed into fairly static blocs that simplify the challenge of estimating the impact of moves aimed at fortifying deterrence. The geometry of deterrence is increasingly kaleidoscopic. That’s doubly true in theaters like Northeast Asia where multiple contenders are situated in cramped geographic confines relative to one another.
In short, the consequences of atomic miscalculation are less cataclysmic than during the first nuclear age, but the likelihood of such a miscalculation appears markedly higher. To name one complicating factor, Biden and Putin cannot—or at least should not—strike up new arms-control arrangements without accounting for the China factor. Fixing or reducing the U.S. and Russian arsenals through bilateral arms control while China determinedly expands its own would empower an increasingly belligerent Chinese Communist Party.
That’s in no one’s interest except the CCP’s.
Despite the entente between Moscow and Beijing, the thought of a China that commands nuclear parity or superiority ought to discomfit not just American but Russian political magnates. In the second nuclear age as in the first, arms control is oftentimes valuable. Washington should not pursue it for its own sake.
Look before you leap.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College, a nonresident fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs, and contributing coeditor of Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age (Georgetown, 2012). The views voiced here are his alone.