International Order, Arms Control and Disarmament

31 March 2020
International Order, Arms Control and Disarmament

International order comprises the fundamental rules, principles and institutions that make up the governing arrangements between states. In modern history, new orders have typically formed after major wars. Not this time: we are moving from the liberal world order to something we do not yet know, and the transition is turbulent.

For international cooperation, these are trying times. National sovereignty is being reconfirmed; trade and technology wars and economic sanctions top the international agenda; international norms, institutions and agreements are falling apart; new technologies nurture new forms of influence and capacities for violence; and dialogue between the big powers is dismal. The consequence is unpredictability bordering on chaos.

The transition is mirrored in the unravelling of the arms control architecture. In the nuclear field, we are almost back to the years immediately after the Second World War, when rules for the nuclear age had not yet been developed. The essence of common security – that security is something you must build in tandem with your adversary – is alien to contemporary power politics. We delude ourselves if we think that war between nuclear-weapon states is a malady of the past, no longer deserving our attention.

To reduce the risk of another major conflagration, a modicum of agreement must be reached between the major powers. The Concert of Europe after the Napoleonic wars is an interesting precursor. The European powers were five: Austria, France, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia. The contemporary world is also multipolar, with a similar number of big powers. In the Concert of Europe, states agreed to respect one another’s vital interests, exercise restraint and abstain from unilateral use of force. They met regularly and communicated frequently. With two main exceptions – the Crimean war and the Franco-German war – the Concert helped keep the peace for almost a century (1815–1914)1.

Arms control

Arms control focused on stability has done much to reduce the risk of nuclear war, but it has crumbled under geopolitical change, technological pressures and the deterioration of international relations. The first victim of geopolitical change was the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe; the first victim of technological pressure was the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty unravelled under the pressure of all three; and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty are likely to follow. This may not invalidate the theory of arms control, but it has major implications for how it can be practiced.

Matching systems and parity requirements can no longer be the way forward. Balancing different force components into neat packages is a tall order as well. Ballistic missiles, missile defences, outer space facilities, dual-capable cruise missiles, hypervelocity gliders, long-range nuclear drones, and cyber and artificial intelligence can hardly be fine-tuned and inked into international agreements2. The transitional phase of world affairs and the qualitative development of nuclear arsenals have combined to put formal arms control agreements to an end – for now. However, stability may be promoted in other ways.

A responsibility-based approach

One overriding common concern may serve as the rallying point and guiding principle for peaceful coexistence between the contemporary powers: avoiding nuclear war. In his proposed responsibility-based approach, Gower defines nuclear strategic stability broadly, as “a metric of international relations …[that] is high where the risk of any conflict being initiated using nuclear weapons or escalated to the nuclear level is as low as is achievable”. He continues, “A stable nuclear world can absorb crises without breaking the threshold3”.

Gower proposes a code of responsibility starting with restraint in rhetoric, posture and readiness; unambiguous communication pathways between national control authorities; and abstention from using nuclear weapons as levers of statecraft, except as strategic deterrents. He ends on a plea for nuclear-weapon states to develop reduction paths on the way to zero. Nuclear-armed states could adopt such measures unilaterally, bilaterally or multilaterally to improve confidence and stability, and agreement on a pathway along these lines would facilitate the adoption of specific measures.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is an appropriate setting for discussion of such a code. Proponents of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (the Ban Treaty) can be expected to join in. Measures to reduce the risk of nuclear war are high on their list of priorities.

The NPT and the Ban Treaty

Fifty years after the NPT entered into force, the nuclear-weapon parties plan to retain their nuclear capabilities for the foreseeable future. While more obligations have been loaded on non-nuclear parties, the nuclear powers cling to their privileged status. More and more, the NPT serves as a holding operation to keep the non-nuclear-weapon parties in place.

The Ban Treaty was born in protest. If the 2020 NPT Review Conference fails to address the concerns that led to the Ban Treaty, support for the latter is likely to grow. The NPT will not disappear, but its legitimacy will be weakened. Within one year of the Ban Treaty entering into force, the Secretary-General shall convene a meeting of states parties. That may be an occasion to clarify treaty language and compliance issues, explore ways in which allied states may begin to relate to the Treaty, sharpen the underlying narrative, and pursue measures that may incrementally lead to a ban regime. The ambition must be to have nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states address one another’s main concerns: the constraints of the international security environment on the one hand and the risk of nuclear use and its humanitarian consequences on the other.

Joint monitoring and alleviation of risks

In 2007, four United States statesmen (Kissinger, Nunn, Perry and Schulz) sounded the alarm. Emphasizing that the number of nuclear-weapon states was growing; that terrorists might acquire nuclear weapons; and that new nuclear-weapon states did not have the benefit of years of step-by-step safeguards put into effect during the Cold War, they set out to revive the spirit of Reykjavik. Twenty years earlier, Reagan and Gorbachov had met in the Icelandic capital in an attempt to get rid of all nuclear weapons. The United States leaders drew the same conclusion, stating that the world had become too dangerous to hold on to these weapons.

Since then, crisis instabilities have grown across the board. First, because the race for new military technologies create new instabilities; second, because arms control is in disarray; and third, because sovereign states fight for their interests in a transitioning world, including by military competition and shadow boxing. Clearly, there is more to support the quest for disarmament than thirteen years ago – this time, as pursued primarily by the parties to the Ban Treaty and by civil society – but so far, the humanitarian narrative has not rocked the deterrence-based policies of the nuclear weapon states. Deterrence remains the name of the game, legitimizing arms build-up.

As long as the world is in transition, the big powers cannot be expected to settle for comprehensive deals. However, it is in our collective interests to avoid nuclear war, so what can we do to reign in the instabilities? A mini- version of the European concert – an institutionalized arrangement for monitoring and alleviation of risks – is a realistic possibility. Since the concerns are universal, select non-nuclear weapon states should be willing to take part. Who will seize the initiative?

Sverre Lodgaard is a Norwegian political scientist and security expert. He was the third Director of UNIDIR serving from 1992-1996.

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[1] Muller, H., and C. Rauch, Great Power Multilateralism and the Prevention of War, 2018.
[2] Russians argue that on technical grounds, another bilateral US-Russian agreement is feasible. Arbatov, A., “A New Era of Arms Control: Myths, Realities and Options”, Carnegie Moscow Center, 24 October 2019,
[3] Gower, J., “Improving Nuclear Strategic Stability through a Responsibility-Based Approach”, presentation, Improving Strategic Nuclear Stability (side event to First Committee), United Nations, New York, 25 October 2019,