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Swedish Defence Research Agency

6 December 2021

Difficult to reach new disarmament agreements

For several decades, nuclear weapons have been controlled by agreements between the nuclear-weapons states, mainly the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. FOI has studied the conditions that would be required to achieve such agreements and whether this would be possible today. The conclusion is that it is doubtful that any further agreements than those already in force will be reached.

Two men signing documents

General Secretary Gorbachev and President Reagan signing the INF Treaty in the East Room of the White House. Photo: White House Photographic Office/ Wikimedia Commons.

“There are several reasons for investigating the conditions for new agreements,” says Martin Goliath, Senior Scientist in FOI’s CBRN Defence and Security Division.
“Technology development is one, for example; new capabilities and systems can emerge that are not regulated by current agreements. Another is that new countries, China, for example, could eventually participate in negotiations on new agreements.

The study, which Martin Goliath conducted with Anders Axelsson, Mattias Waldenvik and Jens Wirstam, concludes that there are three requirements that need to be met to reach an effective agreement. The agreement must meet the following conditions:

  1. It must contribute to strategic stability, which is fundamentally a political issue involving whether the parties perceive the agreement as advantageous.
  2. It must be characterised by reciprocity, to the greatest degree possible, in terms of rights and obligations.
  3. Once signed, it needs to be feasible. To be so, it in turn must be predictable and verifiable.

“For example, this may require that there are possibilities for the parties to be able to come and inspect each other, or to ensure in other ways that the agreement is actually being complied with,” says Martin Goliath.

Predictability a requirement for stability

Strategic stability means that there is no incentive for nuclear-weapons states to use their weapons against each other. That an agreement contributes to this is thus the first condition that needs to be met. If there are no security policy benefits for all parties involved in concluding an arms control agreement, it does not matter whether the agreement itself is effective and verifiable.

“This means that both parties feel that the agreement increases security. That you make certain concessions that at the same time mean that you feel safer, and stability increases. That is perhaps the most important condition of all,” says Martin Goliath.

When it comes to implementation, one also needs to consider how the agreement regulates the interaction between the parties over time.

“Predictability is the key word. For example, you need to know how to resolve any disputes over interpretations. You do not want a situation where, because of inadequate predictability in how the agreement will be verified, you begin to doubt whether the other party is following it,” says Martin Goliath.

Tripartite agreement unlikely

The prospects of reaching a working agreement on arms control increase if the already-existing weapons, capabilities and commitments of the parties are of the same kind and decrease if there are asymmetries in this regard.

“It makes it easier if you do not need to compare too many apples and oranges. For example, if you have to set missile defense against countermeasures against the same missile defense,” says Martin Goliath.

The latter currently applies to the development of US capabilities in relation to Russia’s. This in turn is affected by technological development in general, where different parties invest in different types of weapon systems and may also have an advantage in certain areas.

Yet another difficulty in reaching new agreements is whether more parties need to be involved.

“A conceivable example would be a tripartite agreement between China, Russia and the US. But China has chosen a different path than the other two in terms of preparedness and transparency. If they are to participate, they also need to change their doctrine, which they may not be prepared to do. In addition, they are estimated to have a much smaller arsenal, which can further complicate matters,” says Martin Goliath.

Another aggravating aspect concerns the so-called sub-strategic nuclear weapons, which are often integrated into conventional weapon systems, which have so far not been covered by previous agreements.

In summary, the conclusion that Martin Goliath and his colleagues draw is that there are presently no clear incentives for achieving nuclear arms control that goes beyond the extension of the New START agreement signed between the United States and Russia in early 2021.

“The odds of getting such an extension were low. But we can see how the future unfolds. You can sometimes still be surprised by what happens,” says Martin Goliath.

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