The nine proposals in this report speak for themselves; what does not is the challenge of generating the “political will”—to use a term beloved by diplomats—that will be needed to turn these proposals into reality. Part of the difficulty stems from the fraught relationships between the United States and China and the United States and Russia. Additionally, divisive internal politics create incentives for leaders not to seek cooperation with rivals, even when all parties could enjoy security benefits from arms control.
While there is no simple fix, it would be wrong to assume that political barriers are immutable. On October 14, 1962, the day before Soviet missiles were discovered in Cuba, it would have been unthinkable that, within a year, Moscow and Washington would establish a hotline intended to reduce the risk of nuclear war. In early 1985, when U.S.-Soviet negotiations on the INF Treaty had been suspended for almost eighteen months and hundreds of nuclear-armed missiles were deployed in Europe, it would have seemed far-fetched to suggest that a treaty prohibiting those missiles would be concluded by 1987. It is impossible to predict when opportunities for arms control will arise, but China, Russia, and the United States and NATO should consider and refine proposals now to enable rapid progress when the political conditions allow.
The key to making progress will be to craft arms control approaches that each party believes will benefit its specific interests—a requirement that is obvious but challenging to implement given the asymmetries and tensions among Chinese, Russian, and U.S. interests. One potential solution is to package two or more measures together. An obvious combination, for example, would be to link a proposal on ballistic missile defenses to one on NSNWs, thus catering to both Russian and U.S. concerns. In this context, Beijing, in particular, should undertake the internal work needed to define what it might want from Washington (and Moscow too, perhaps).
At the same time, each state should ask itself whether its interests would be better served by a broader conception of its security goals—one that encompasses the prevention of arms racing and the mitigation of inadvertent escalation risks as well as the development of effective deterrence capabilities. Nuclear deterrence requires there to be some risk of escalation, otherwise a nuclear threat could never be credible; however, calibrating this risk to optimize a state’s security can be difficult. Indeed, in today’s world, the risks of escalation seem unnecessarily high. An incipient global nuclear arms race is only likely to add to the costs yet further. Arms control—undervalued and underexplored today—can be a powerful tool for better managing the risks inherent to enhancing security through threats of catastrophic destruction.