The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the ‘Axis of Certainty-Eroding Time’

The 2018 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) is this week in the second half of its two-week session. States have gathered to discuss the most pressing challenges to the non-proliferation and disarmament regime.

Amid the dry opening statements made by most governments last week, Chris Ford, Assistant Under-Secretary for International Security and Non-Proliferation, struck a different tone. In a characteristically philosophical address, Ford posited that a reassessment of the Bhagavad Gita and reflection on ‘the axis of certainty-eroding Time’ could ‘help us recommit ourselves to the success of the NPT and the nonproliferation regime in the future.’ Ford reflected on how the NPT has defied expectations and been far more successful than anyone could have hoped. So, how does U.S. nuclear policy, recently outlined in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), contribute towards the non-proliferation regime?

The NPR broadly describes the current period as one of geopolitical uncertainty characterised by a ‘return to great power competition.’ It claims, with highly contested metrics, that the U.S. has fallen behind its adversaries and needs to broaden its nuclear options and increase the diversity and flexibility of its forces. Importantly, it needs to counter Russia’s supposed willingness to engage in ‘limited nuclear first use’ with low-yield non-strategic nuclear weapons, plug a perceived ‘credibility gap’ and ‘correct’ the ‘mistaken [Russian] confidence that limited nuclear employment can provide a useful advantage.’

As such, it proposes a new sea-launched nuclear cruise missile (SLCM), and modifications to some Trident warheads to enable low yield use on top of the existing modernisation of the U.S. strategic arsenal. It signals U.S. willingness to use these nuclear options in a limited retaliatory strike. It also expands potential triggers for U.S. nuclear use to include ‘non-nuclear strategic attacks’ which could, somewhat ambiguously, include conventional, chemical and biological attacks, or those from emerging threats such as cyber-attacks. In doing so the NPR rests firmly on deterrence, more so than non-proliferation and disarmament.

The NPR ostensibly commits Washington to arms control, but the agenda is unclear. It apportions blame on Russia for the current crisis, arguing that ‘further progress is difficult to envisage,’ and that ‘concluding further agreements with [Russia] would indicate a lack of consequences for its non-compliance and thereby undermine arms control.’ Its sole stated strategy relies on using the new SLCM to coax Russian compliance with the INF Treaty.

On 17th April, the U.S. stated that it ’continued to be in compliance with all of its obligations under arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements.’ But many NPT states, both allies and adversaries, may find the direction of U.S. policy troubling, and some would contest that statement. For many allies, the NPR’s claim that extended deterrence is seen as ‘a cornerstone of U.S. non-proliferation efforts,’ that enables allies to forego independent nuclear weapons capabilities will be an uncomfortable one. It seems out of step with their understanding of the wider difficulties facing the non-proliferation regime and the need to make progress on disarmament. This is especially true when states are feeling the pressure of the Ban Treaty.

So far at this year’s PrepCom, many states have echoed concerns over deteriorating relations and a lack of progress between the U.S. and Russia. Recurring themes were that modernisation programmes, including new low-yield nuclear warheads, lower the threshold for nuclear use.

The NPR’s claim that these new weapons ‘raise the threshold’ for nuclear use by reducing any ambiguity in understanding about U.S. resolve jars with common understanding about threshold. It may in the minds of some strategists reduce the likelihood of nuclear exchange. However, increasing the ‘credibility’ of non-strategic nuclear weapons lowers the threshold by any standard interpretation, as credibility relies on an adversary believing the U.S. would use these weapons at lower levels of escalation.

Following the NPR’s publication, Germany’s Foreign Minister publicly stated that the U.S. ‘decision to develop new tactical nuclear weapons [shows] that the spiral of a new nuclear arms race has already been set in motion.’ Indeed, traditional arms control between the two nuclear superpowers appears at risk, as both the U.S. and Russia accuse each other of violating the INF Treaty and show little prospect of extending New START. In their NPT opening statements, U.S. allies urged Washington and Moscow to address compliance concerns through diplomatic means and to extend New START.

For many, changes in U.S. policy may be insufficient to tackle the pressing non-proliferation and disarmament problems of today. Some have noted that the NPR reveals a ‘nervous’ U.S., uncertain in its ability to deter, while others have argued that it shows a ‘lack of ambition to shape the nuclear order.’ Washington may appear willing to accept a world in which nuclear deterrence has an expanded role but unwilling to lead on issues to mitigate nuclear risks—such as entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and new arms control, both touchstone issues for the NPT process. Moreover, some will interpret U.S. action on the JCPOA as an attempt to dismantle elements of an already fragile regime.

Ford is correct to remind us that the NPT has defied expectations and it is important to reflect on the successes of the step-by-step approach. Nonetheless, it is also important to reflect on how continued nuclear possession and nuclear modernisation obstructs progress on multilateral disarmament along ‘the axis of certainty-eroding Time.’

Maxwell Downman is an analyst for the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), where he is responsible for a programme on transatlantic relations and parliamentary work. He is also the Clerk for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global Security and Non-Proliferation. He tweets at @MaxwellDownman.

Banner image: Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan, center, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas A. Shannon Jr., left, and Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette brief the press on the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review at the Pentagon, Feb. 2, 2018. Department of Defense photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Kathryn E. Holm. Available here.


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