The control of weapons of mass destruction has been about numbers, treaties and norms. The first two get most of the attention, even though the third is the grand prize. Numbers and treaties are essential tools to build an edifice of normative behavior and customary practice. Numbers and treaties are the means. Norms are the ends.
Strategic arms control is a process, and is therefore numbers-oriented. Treaties relating to nuclear testing, chemical and biological weapons codify norms. As treaties become harder to enter into force, or as they enter into force without key states, customary practice becomes all important. Treaties and numbers still matter, in large measure because they reinforce norms. The number of treaty signatories is consequential even when some of them do not deposit instruments of ratification, preventing entry into force. Through customary practice, norms can become stronger over time even when treaties are stalled.
Sometimes the attention paid to numbers is misplaced, as Thomas Schelling argued and as discussed in last week’s post. Even so, numbers still have considerable import, as they provide a snapshot of the work in progress we call arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation. No construction plans are fixed and complete, despite the blueprints we have to work with.
Occasionally, construction projects require build-downs. Strengthening the global regime against nuclear proliferation is linked to responsible behavior by the two states with the worst records of nuclear excess. Reductions in nuclear force structure and inventories by the United States and Russia are necessary, but hardly sufficient to strengthen the norm of nuclear nonproliferation.
In terms of the strategic balance, it doesn’t matter whether Vladimir Putin tries to build up to New START ceilings with a liquid-fueled, MIRVed replacement to the SS-18. Nonetheless, it matters a great deal if Putin stiffs President Obama’s offer for parallel reductions below New START limits. Putin seems intent to mortgage Russia’s future in many ways, one of which is to equate national power with weapons that will not influence events in Moscow’s favor. He does, however, have the power to slow down a quarter-century-long process of parallel strategic arms reduction and corrode the bargain between nuclear haves and have-nots in the Nonproliferation Treaty – that continued abstention is predicated on the sincere pursuit of disarmament among bomb holders.
Yes, I know the counter argument: non-nuclear weapon states continue to pledge allegiance to the NPT out of self-interest, regardless of nuclear numerology. This revisionist argument is unpersuasive because it disregards the central bargain on which the NPT regime was constructed. Moreover, it can have pernicious consequences by providing cover for bomb holders to become slackers, while discounting the importance of numbers in the calculations of abstainers as to whether the NPT remains in their national security interests. Deeper cuts by Washington and Moscow are just one indicator of the continued health of the NPT regime — but an important one. Abstainers that rely on extended US nuclear deterrence do not require New START-level numbers for solace; lesser numbers will do. Even so, other corrosive developments will plague the NPT, particularly from the nuclear weapon-related programs in Iran and North Korea.
Free-riders watch on the sidelines as others engage in construction projects. Free-riders to the NPT like India and Pakistan are growing their nuclear inventories while enjoying norms that make it more costly and more obvious for new entrants into the bomb-making business. The subcontinent’s free-riders have not repaid debts to the NPT with signatures on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
China, another state with a growing nuclear inventory, has not ratified the CTBT. Beijing has benefited as much, if not more, than any state party to the NPT, while North Korea, which depends on China’s largesse, continues to grow fissile material stocks and has not ruled out additional nuclear tests. Another free rider, Israel, has refrained from ratifying the CTBT. If the United States and Russia remain stuck on New START numbers – less than three years after reaching them, with seven more years before the Treaty’s current end date – they, too, will hold passes as free riders. Free ridership corrodes norms and treaties.
The number that matters most in norm-setting is zero. This number is the clearest and most meaningful way to sets norms and customary practices among responsible states. The number zero is embedded in the CTBT, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Biological Weapons Convention. States that do not honor the number zero become, ipso facto, outliers. Because numbers of chemical and biological weapons that are greater than zero can be hidden, suspicions can only be conclusively affirmed by use, if they cannot be revealed by national technical means or intrusive treaty-monitoring regimes.
Norms are about behavior as well as numbers. Behavior is usually easier to monitor than numbers. The use of chemical and biological weapons becomes an indelible stain on the user. Who wants a resumé like that of Bashar al-Assad? How many states wish to join the company of North Korea in testing nuclear weapons?
Norms are also being codified in conventions against the transfer and use of certain conventional weapons, including some types of land mines and cluster munitions. These norms have important outliers, as well. Being an outlier in compacts dealing with conventional weapons entails less stigma, at least until customary, responsible practice becomes more recognizable and expected over time. This long and winding road lies ahead.
The clearest and cleanest way to codify norms and numbers is by treaties but, as noted, treaties for the foreseeable future won’t enter into force or, if they do, they will enter into force without key parties. As long as treaties remain in this limbo, success in arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation will depend increasingly on customary, responsible practices that harden over time into norms.