US-Russia arms race pushes world closer to potential disaster
There is a naive expectation that humanity will progress linearly and that humans will learn from their experiences and from history. There are few grounds for this view, and the current state of international affairs seems to be dead set on defying those notions in their entirety. Instead we witness a world entering, if not already in, a prolonged period of instability, ruled by nationalism and populism and reintroducing big power rivalry, trade wars and arms races, including a nuclear one.
It goes without saying that the prevention of nuclear proliferation and confrontation is a determining factor in ensuring the future of humanity: It is a necessary condition, if not the only one. Yet there are many existing and potential flashpoints that are putting at risk the world order and stability and raising the threat of action by those with nuclear ambitions.
The decision by Russia and the US to abandon the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is one of them. Both sides accuse the other of violating the agreement, or at least the spirit of it. When it was signed in 1987, the INF Treaty for the first time eliminated an entire class of missiles that during the Cold War were perceived as undermining stability in Europe, whose proximity to the Soviet Union made the latter a grave and immediate threat. Not surprising then that the withdrawal from the treaty by the two main nuclear protagonists, amid mutual recriminations and at a low point in the relationship between Washington and Moscow, has left European capitals once again feeling caught in a brewing conflict that they have a great stake in, but very limited influence over.
It has to be said that there is much in the Trump administration’s charge that Moscow has breached the INF Treaty by deploying a ground-launched cruise missile, the 9M729 or SSC-8. It puts Russia ahead in the race to redeploy a previously banned category of weapon. According to some reports, Russia has already fielded about 100 of these missiles, while President Vladimir Putin is suggesting further development of a ground-launched version of the naval intermediate-range nuclear missile, which, like the air-launched version, is not prohibited.
Now that the US is allocating resources for new missile research and development, it is clear that the arms race is well and truly underway, and threatening the international agenda with unforeseen consequences. Moscow’s complaint that Washington’s deployment of anti-ballistic missile interceptors in Romania and expectedly soon in Poland poses a security threat to it is understandable, even if it is no justification for violating the INF agreement’s terms by arguing that their warheads could be changed. However, unlike Russia’s actual violation of the agreement, the US deployment signifies an option, not an actual occurrence.
In this relapse into the world order of the Cold War and its nuclear arms race, there is now a third player, China
Russia under Putin is on the march in an attempt to regain its old superpower glory. But, just as in the case of the Cold War, it might find that its lack of economic prowess and good governance might hinder this revived ambition. Washington, on the other hand, is talking tough and acting weak. Its rhetoric is confrontational and provocative, but it shows very little commitment to conflicts such as Syria or Ukraine, leaving them at the mercy of Russia and at the same time alienating its main Western allies. There is the fear that haphazardly forsaking the INF Treaty, which has served as an important stabilizing component, might lead to also not renewing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which sets limits on long-range strategic missiles, when it expires in two years’ time. The demise of the INF and possibly of START, combined with growing tensions between Russia and the West on an array of global issues, makes new arms control measures even more crucial and urgently necessary. Paradoxically, while relations between countries in possession of nuclear weapons are deteriorating, agreements to limit the development, deployment and proliferation of such weapons are needed more than ever, but are hard to come by.
Moreover, in this rapid, back-to-the-future relapse into the world order of the Cold War and its nuclear arms race, there is now a third player, China, which is seen more as an aggressive economic competitor than a military one. This perilous assumption portrays an inaccurate strategic picture. Beijing has never been a signatory to the INF regime and hence has not been constrained by it. In fact, China has developed a massive arsenal of intermediate-range nuclear missiles to affect the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region — a region of great strategic importance to both the US and Russia, and potentially a more likely theater of future confrontation than Europe.
In a recent security report published ahead of last month’s Munich Security Conference (MSC), which attracted leaders from across the globe, the unsurprising conclusion was that the period of post-Cold War optimism is truly over. The sense of living in a secure world in which poverty, instability and uncertainty are things of the past, has been replaced by the recognition that we now live in a new world of interregnum, with competing orders and not necessarily peaceful times ahead.
MSC chairman Wolfgang Ischinger said ahead of the conference: “When looking at the current state of international affairs, it is difficult to escape the feeling that the world is not just witnessing a series of smaller and bigger crises, but… seems to be experiencing a reshuffling of core pieces of the international order. A new era of great power competition is unfolding between the United States, China, and Russia.”
What is even more disturbing is that, at a time like this, with mounting challenges, the liberal international order is experiencing a leadership void. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is constantly warning against the worldwide trend to more reactive and populist leaderships with no vision or foresight. Combine this with nuclear proliferation and a conventional arms race, and there is a shorter and shorter route to international cataclysm.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg