After the recent death of the treaty covering intermediate-range missiles, a new arms race appears to be taking shape, drawing in more players, more money and more weapons at a time of increased global instability and anxiety about nuclear proliferation.
The arms control architecture of the Cold War, involving tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, was laboriously designed over years of hard-fought negotiations between two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union. The elaborate treaties helped keep the world from nuclear annihilation.
Today, those treaties are being abandoned by the United States and Russia just as new strategic competitors not covered by the Cold War accords — like China, North Korea and Iran — are asserting themselves as regional powers and challenging U.S. hegemony.
The dismantling of “arms control,” a Cold War mantra, is now heightening the risks of a new era when nuclear powers like India and Pakistan are clashing over Kashmir, and when nuclear Israel feels threatened by Iran, North Korea is testing new missiles, and other countries like Saudi Arabia are thought to have access to nuclear weapons or be capable of building them.
The consequence, experts say, is likely to be a more dangerous and unstable environment, even in the near term, that could precipitate unwanted conflicts and demand vast new military spending among the world’s biggest powers, including the United States.
“If there’s not nuclear disarmament, there will be proliferation,” said Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear analyst and president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. “If big powers race to build up their arsenals, smaller powers will follow.”
“As long as the big boys cling to their toys, others will want them,” he added, quoting the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei.
Not only are the big boys clinging to them, there are more big boys now, and they want more toys.
For Washington, China is seen as a rising strategic rival and competitor. And the United States is moving to increase its military presence and missile deployments in Asia, as a deterrent against a more aggressive Beijing, which has vastly expanded and modernized its stock of medium-range missiles that can hit U.S. ships, as well as Taiwan.
At the same time, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, has talked about letting the last strategic-arms control treaty, New START, die in February 2021, without extending it another five years, as foreseen in the accord, which was signed under President Barack Obama.