This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

In the 1985 Cold War satire, Dunn’s Conundrum, its author, Stan Lee, equates the nuclear arms race with a Native American ceremony known as ‘potlatch’.

In this ceremony, chiefs demonstrate their power by destroying gifts and objects of value. Dunn’s characters apply this logic to America’s nuclear weapons, arguing that they should not be judged on their military utility, but rather on their ability to force the adversary to engage in a wasteful contest in which valuable resources are sacrificed.

‘Does it force the Russians to throw something into the fire? Are they forced to build a similar weapon?’ asks one character in the book. ‘If they do, thus tossing more worldly goods into the campfire, then the weapon has already succeeded in its mission. It is only when the Soviets don’t spend money to counter it that the weapon is a flop.’

Recent announcements about Russian and American nuclear arsenals have stoked fears that the two largest nuclear powers are once again engaged in a potlatch-style contest that risks reviving the Cold War arms race.

These fears come amid increasing questions about the health of the global nuclear order. For the past year, the American and North Korean leaders have exchanged vitriolic language suggesting military escalation.

The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the foundation of the global nuclear order since 1968, faces an uncertain future because of disputes over how to achieve one of its declared goals, the pursuit of complete nuclear disarmament. The polarization between the recognized nuclear weapon states − the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China − and the rest was highlighted when 122 countries voted at the United Nations last year in favour of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Concerns are increasing that the evolution of American and Russian nuclear doctrines is lowering the threshold for nuclear use to such an extent that the nuclear taboo may be called into question. At the same time arms control agreements that historically have reduced these risks through transparency, predictability and crisis communications are eroding.

Despite these concerns, the nuclear order is not on a pathway to anarchy. Rather, states continue to be constrained by international treaties and norms, and no one has an incentive to be the first to use nuclear weapons. Much of this heightened concern is due to misperception of the adversary’s strategic doctrine, and this does have the potential to increase the risk of nuclear escalation in a crisis.

Reducing these risks and misperception will require a renewed commitment to the health of the global nuclear regime, new mechanisms and institutions for crisis communication and arms control, as well as clarification about American and Russian nuclear doctrines.

Weakening rules

Both political rhetoric and news reports coming out of Washington and Moscow suggest that the old rules of the global nuclear order are weakening. For example, a New York Times headline on February 4, 2018, read, ‘To counter Russia, US signals nuclear weapons arms are back in a big way’, which was echoed a week later by a Sputnik News headline declaring, ‘The nuclear arms race has never really ended’.

As a thought experiment we can envision what nuclear anarchy might look like. First, nuclear material would be more widely available than at present, with more nuclear possessor states or states with the capability to readily develop nuclear weapons. This would include nuclear capabilities in the hands of non-state actors and various governments that may be less attuned to the humanitarian costs of using nuclear weapons or desire them specifically to cause a humanitarian catastrophe.

Second, there would be no regimes or institutions codifying the rules of the road and binding states together in the pursuit of shared values. There would be no NPT, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or Conference on Disarmament. Instead, states would be unfettered in their nuclear policies, whether that be developing nuclear weapons, testing, or transferring them to non-state actors or other states. Additionally, states would have no insight into each other’s arsenals or transparency about their nuclear doctrines or intentions.

Third, in addition to the absence of multilateral institutions, the US and Russia would do away with the practice of arms control. There would be no debate around compliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty or the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) because neither the US nor Russia would have any interest in such agreements. In addition, there would be no limitations on the number of weapons and delivery vehicles each possessed, no forums for dialogue and, in the absence of on-site verification, only limited transparency as to the state of arsenals or nuclear doctrine.

Strict supervision

The contemporary nuclear order is a far cry from this vision of anarchy. After decades of anxious predictions, there are still only nine nuclear weapons states − the political scientist Kenneth Waltz predicted in 1981 that there would be 18 − and four countries have given up their nuclear weapons: South Africa and the former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Terrorists have never acquired or used nuclear weapons. While these fears of the spread of nuclear weapons continue to exist and require vigilance, military nuclear technology remains under strict supervision and the global system of export controls, sanctions, and norms has slowed its proliferation.

One reason is the role of institutions, which states continue to respect. Many states express frustration at the lack of progress at the Conference on Disarmament, for example, and yet they continue to participate and have confidence in its legitimacy. Only one country has ever withdrawn from the NPT − North Korea − and it was subsequently treated as an international pariah, arguably further strengthening the non-proliferation regime.

Above all, the norm of non-use remains strong and has indeed been strengthened by recent attention to the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. Again, this is not to ignore the challenges and flaws with the current state of affairs − four nuclear possessors remain outside the NPT − but this does not suggest that these institutions are therefore worthless or should be abandoned.

Like the NPT, US-Russia arms control is imperfect and faces an uncertain future. Both sides accuse the other of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and there are no prospects of extending the New START Treaty. The US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and Russia suspended observation of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty in 2007. And yet, this is hardly a rejection of the practice of arms control. In February 2018 both sides reached the agreed limits of New START and will continue to verify the treaty until 2021.

For the US, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) commits Washington to a future arms control agenda, although its substance remains vague. For example, in calling for a new sea-launched cruise missile, the NPR clearly ties this to the goal of bringing Russia back to the negotiating table.

In Congressional testimony outlining the NPR, Jim Mattis, the US defence secretary, asserted that America remains open to ‘prudent arms control’ and described the cruise missile as a bargaining chip, ‘to keep our negotiators negotiating from a
position of strength’. Of all the nuclear institutions, bilateral strategic arms control faces the most uncertain future, but the US and Russia continue to practise it and express an interest in restoring it.

The myth of ‘escalate to de-escalate’

The release of America’s NPR has highlighted a continuing source of misperception with regards to Russia, which does indeed present a heightened nuclear risk. The NPR characterizes Russia’s nuclear doctrine as ‘escalate to de-escalate’, whereby Moscow would launch a limited nuclear strike in a conventional crisis involving a NATO country, with the aim of achieving ‘capitulation on terms favourable to Moscow’.

Effective US deterrence ‘now requires ensuring that the Russian leadership does not miscalculate regarding the consequences of limited nuclear first use

The NPR argues that such a posture would seriously misinterpret American deterrence policy and resolve.

Effective US deterrence ‘now requires ensuring that the Russian leadership does not miscalculate regarding the consequences of limited nuclear first use, either regionally or against the United States itself’. From Washington’s perspective, Moscow does not understand its nuclear doctrine and the credibility of its deterrent.

At the same time, however, Russia insists that Washington does not understand its nuclear doctrine and inflates the threat of Russian nuclear use. Numerous Russian nuclear experts have challenged the concept of ‘escalate to de-escalate’ on the grounds that Russian doctrine actually increases the nuclear threshold, and, given Russian conventional superiority in a conflict with NATO, it would not need such a doctrine.

Regardless of which capital makes the stronger case, this misunderstanding itself presents a risk. In the event of a crisis, the US might fear Russia is less constrained by the nuclear taboo and has a lower nuclear threshold than the US. Similarly, Moscow might see the latest NPR as American adventurism by expanding the role of nuclear deterrence to address non-nuclear threats. This is hardly nuclear anarchy, but it is a more risky nuclear climate than the world has experienced since the end of the Cold War.

To avoid sliding into nuclear anarchy the US and Russia can take steps to resolve this misperception of ‘escalate to de-escalate’ and rebuild trust around existing nuclear institutions.

First, they should engage in military-to-military dialogues specifically to discuss nuclear doctrine, retire the term ‘escalate to de-escalate’ and establish crisis communication channels and practices.

Second, they can recommit to arms control by resolving disputes over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and extending the 2010 New START Treaty.

Finally, to strengthen the norm of non-use during these uncertain times, the US and Russia can raise awareness about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear use. This will serve to strengthen nuclear weapons’ deterrent value and reinforce the ethical argument against their use.