As any observer can notice, all great and regional powers are building up their weapons arsenals. Some are proud of it and like to show it both to the outside world and to their own people like Putin’s Russia or Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, and also Trump; others do it more disguised like China.
At first sight, this theme can easily be linked with the overall topic of this section, the collapse of the liberal world order. Under liberal world order, I understand a world order based on the idea of cooperation, that means international law, international organizations, international regimes, including free trade, as well as the idea of democracy and human rights with respect to the domestic characteristics of the polis. The current weakening of the liberal world order yields more uncertainty, that is used as an argument to build up weapons arsenals. Sounds logic.
My point today is that reality is a bit more complex. I will try to argue:
1) That there has never been a truly global liberal world order; if not, one would not have seen arms racing e.g. in the Cold War;
2) That there are also other drivers of arms races than great power rivalry, here I mean domestic drivers, read bureaucratic politics.
3) That there is more and more contestation against arms racing in the group of countries that is mostly forgotten, those that are not directly seen as being regional powers, and that applies in particular to nuclear weapons.
Before elaborating, let me briefly give you an overview of the impasse we have reached in the domain of arms control: with respect to nuclear weapons, the INF treaty on medium-range missiles is gone since yesterday; for the first time ever (including large parts of the Cold War), the US and Russia are not negotiating a new arms treaty nor are they planning to do; the only treaty for strategic nuclear weapons is New START; that will expire in 2021 and it is unclear whether it will be extended for five years; If it is not extended, as it currently looks like, it would be the first time since very long that there will be no strategic arms treaty that is in the stage of being implemented. The latter means that both former superpowers will have no direct access anymore to verify each other’s nuclear arms installations, and that both of them can build up their nuclear weapons arsenals again without any constraint. Less information means more uncertainty, which is not beneficial for the overall relationship between the US and Russia. The CTBT dating back to 1996 (and promised at the 95 NPT Review and Extension Conference) has still not entered into force; fissile material cut-off negotiations (also promised in the framework of the NPT) have not started yet; the same applies to negotiations for a Middle East WMD free zone; the last NPT Review Conference failed and most experts believe the next one in 2020 will fail again; that would be unprecedented, exactly 50 years after its entry into force; the CD in Geneva is in complete disarray since the late 1990s. President Bush, Jr. unilaterally withdrew from the ABM treaty; Trump from the Iran deal and the INF treaty. North Korea acquired nuclear weapons. Despite the CWC, chemical weapons have been used again recently in Syria. The CFE Treaty is dead. This is not a rosy picture.
Of course, there is also good news: the numbers of nuclear weapons are still decreasing (but the speed is much and much lower than before, and all nuclear armed states are planning to modernize their nuclear weapons arsenals); a landmine and cluster munitions treaty have been concluded as well as an ATT. But overall, the picture looks rather bleak indeed.
But let’s come to the main question: What is the effect of the collapsing liberal world order for arms racing and arms control?
First point: The picture is not that in the past we had a truly successful liberal world order including in the field of peace and security, and that today because of the collapse of that order we see the spurring of new arms races. The origin of the liberal world order is mostly associated with the end of WW II. As we all know, this world order was largely overruled by the Cold War schism right from the beginning. The Soviet Union and its allies never belonged to that liberal world order, also because they did not want to. Because there was no true global liberal order, we immediately tumbled into the Cold War, including an immense nuclear arms race. In short, I would argue that there has never been a true global liberal world order, except maybe in the beginning of the 1990s, maybe.
After the Cold War, there was a window of opportunity to expand the liberal world order from the West to the rest. Remember, this was the time that Francis Fukuyama wrote his famous book ‘The end of History’, a very optimistic description of the world of that time. According to Fukuyama, the combination of democracy and capitalism, key aspects of a liberal world order, is the ideal world to live in, and humankind had reached that stage. Nothing better could be expected in the future. Theoretically, he may have been right. In practice, it became immediately clear that his theory did not apply to all states and regions in the world. Although Russia embraced both capitalism and democracy under Yeltsin, its economy and as a result its political system never escaped from being very dependent on the export of energy. The Russian economy never made it to a thriving economy. China in contrast did much better in the economic sphere, but there the political system lagged and is still lagging behind. Since Putin is in power, Russia fell back to being a Chinese- like autocracy. In the meantime, even the West encountered serious difficulties on both accounts: we have experienced the financial crisis in the period 2008-2009 that brought us on the brink of an economic crisis like the one of 1929, and we are experiencing the rise of nationalist and populist tendencies, including in the US, which was the initiator and major defender of the so-called liberal world order in the past.
The collapsing liberal world order is partly the result of a shift in the global balance of power that is going on with the rise of China and the demise of the US, at least relatively speaking, esp. in economic terms.
Given all that, it is not surprising to see that the level of cooperation amongst great powers is diminishing, and that balancing mechanisms are on the rise, including arms racing.
That said, I do not believe that we should exaggerate. Overall, most of the liberal world institutions that were created are still alive and kicking: the UN and the whole panoply of other international organisations, the Bretton Woods monetary system, etc. And even in the realm of defence, reality is sometimes different than what the mainstream media makes of it. In the Western media, Putin is the new Hitler. Russia is on the verge of attacking the Baltic states. Russia is building new weapons systems that can easily circumvent Western missile defence systems. Etc. Don’t be fooled. Russia is a declining power (also demographically) that is extremely dependent on the expert of energy. Its defence budget is 5 times less than what we in Europe spend on defence, and if we add our big NATO partner 20 times less. Many of the weapon systems Putin announced do not work. In addition, one could make the argument, as I have done in an article in Global Policy last year, that also the West can be blamed of not having integrated Russia into the Euro-Atlantic security architecture after the Cold War. NATO should have been abolished after the Cold War, just like the Warsaw Pact. Even Realists maintain that alliances are temporary organisations. Not so. NATO did not only remain into existence, it also expanded – contrary to what Western leaders had promised to Gorbachev in 1990 – not only once, but twice or thrice. And it installed missile defence in the Central European states ‘against Iran’. Notice that the missile defence systems remained after the Iran deal. You do not need a lot of empathy to understand that Russian strategists felt afraid, and Russian politicians and people felt not respected, and excluded. One could even make the argument as Stephen Walt (from Harvard), John Mearsheimer (from Chicago) and myself do: that the West is also responsible for the current crisis with Russia.
What about China? China’s arms build-up cannot be denied, but here again it should not be exaggerated. Of course, it is investing some of the huge amount of dollars it has capitalized in defence. But it is limited. China’s assertiveness in foreign policy has also been limited, although we see more and more indications recently that that may be changing, which is not abnormal from a Realist perspective. Is it normal that US submarines are still active on the shores of China? How would the US react if the Chinese would start doing that? As all Realists know, there exists something like spheres of influence. As long as we do not create a true liberal world order, things like spheres of influences and arms racing will remain. The US, the declining power, will have to adapt its behaviour in the Chinese neighbourhood. If not, there will be war.
Second point: the shifting balance of power is not the only explanation for the current arms race. There are also domestic drivers, regardless of the evolution of the external environment. It is crystal clear that defence firms depend for a substantial part for their survival on government orders. Both in the US and Russia a gigantic military-industrial- complex (MIC) was built up during the Cold War with millions of employees both in government and in the private sector. The concept MIC is a term coined by President Eisenhower during his farewell speech. He knew what he was talking about. It means money. It means jobs. As a result, there is permanent pressure from this complex on politicians to order new weapons systems, whether the country needs them or not, whether they work or not (like missile defence, which is basically a job program).
There is another mechanism that is at play in this regard. Weapons systems, especially large weapon systems like missiles, aircraft, ships, nuclear weapons, have a life-time of a couple of decades. It happens that these complex and expensive systems come in cycles. Nowadays, a new cycle of new weapons systems is being planned as the existing systems will come to the end of their lifetime in 10-20 years. That means for instance that the US is now planning to spend 1.2 trillion dollars (and if you add inflation 1.7 trillion dollars) the coming three decades only on nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles. That includes new ballistic missile submarines for 128 bn $, new strategic bombers (B-21s) for 100 bn $, new ICBMs for 85-140 bn $, new air-launched cruise missiles (LRSO) for 11 bn $. The Trump Nuclear Posture Review added new sea-launched cruise missiles and proposes for the first time low-yield SLBMs. But again, most of this (apart from the examples of the Trump NPR) was already planned 10-20 years ago. How do we political scientists call that? Path dependency, right. And it is very hard for politicians to stop that, also because there are so many jobs involved. My point: this arms-racing is happening regardless of the changes in the external environment.
Third and last point: here I limit myself to nuclear weapons. An event that may have escaped your attention (blame it on the mainstream media) is the signing of a major new treaty, namely the Nuclear Prohibition Treaty. It basically forbids the existence, that means development, production, possession, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. The treaty has been negotiated in the framework of the UN and was concluded by 122 states – a clear majority of states in the world – on the 7th of July, last year. Once 50 states ratify, the treaty will enter into force. That may already be the case at the end of next year, or in 2020. From that point onwards, those states that have signed it will regard nuclear weapons not only as inhumane, immoral, but also illegal weapon systems. The nine nuclear armed states and their allies do not like the treaty. But they are a minority. The tables are turned. This is an example of the rise of the Rest, basically African, Latin American and Asian countries who argue that if nuclear weapons will be used, they – their security – will suffer as well, and they are right. The Prohibition treaty is fully in line with the NPT, which up to now was the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime, but which is in deep troubles, not because of the Prohibition treaty (as the nuclear armed states claim), but because of the lack of nuclear disarmament. The ongoing modernisations, the ongoing nuclear arms races are perceived by the rest of the world as being a mockery of the nuclear disarmament obligations that are part of the NPT. This frustration was one of the main drivers behind the Humanitarian Initiative that led to the Prohibition Treaty. One could make the point that this is the outcome of the liberal world order that included the NPT that on its turn promised nuclear disarmament. If legal obligations are only to be fulfilled by one party, they become complete meaningless after a while. The Prohibition Treaty should be regarded as a warning signal to the nuclear armed states and their allies.
One can speculate about the effects of the Prohibition Treaty. I have an article coming out in The Non-proliferation Review in a couple of weeks on the possible stigmatisation effects of the treaty. While most observers in the nuclear armed states and their allies are sceptical, I am rather optimistic. You see already changes happening now. More in particular in the private sector and more in particular in the financial sector. The Norwegian pension fund, a 1,000 bn dollars fund, one of the biggest in the world, decided to divest from nuclear weapons related businesses, last year. The largest Dutch pension fund followed. Deutsche Bank turned the screws on. And in June of this year, the biggest Belgian bank KBC decided to divest from nuclear weapons related business, explicitly referring to the Prohibition Treaty. Not because the CEO was aware of it, but because clients, employees and in the end his Board of Governance made him aware. I have no illusions that all this will halt the pressure from the MIC, but this debate may have spill-over effects in our societies at large. It is my prediction that countries like the NL, Belgium, Germany, and Norway cannot and will not continue their nuclear weapons policies, once a Prohibition Treaty exists.
With respect to nuclear weapons, a clash is coming. That can be easily predicted. The non-nuclear weapons states are fed up with waiting for real disarmament. The NPT may be the first victim. But in the end the survival of the planet, which is still another ball game than the survival of the liberal order, may be at stake.
To conclude, most of us will probably agree that arms racing is not ideal, that we are risking war and, in our age, even nuclear war. This situation is not tenable. It would not be illogic to start diminishing and then hopefully completely eliminating the risk of nuclear war. The only realistic way of doing that is by eliminating nuclear weapons. There is a new incentive, the Prohibition treaty. If the nuclear weapons states miss this chance, the risk exists that we first have to undergo a worsening of the situation in the sense of the end of the NPT and possibly the arrival of new nuclear armed states.
* Tom Sauer is professor of political science at University of Antwerp. His major research interests are international security, more in particular (nuclear) arms control, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, disarmament, missile defence. He currently focusses on humanitarian initiative with respect to nuclear disarmament; Iranian nuclear programme; nuclear terrorism and nuclear security.