What Keeps Nuclear Analysts up at Night?

What Keeps Nuclear Analysts up at Night?
AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin
What Keeps Nuclear Analysts up at Night?
AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

Day One at Carnegie’s International Nuclear Policy Conference

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Fresh off the Hanoi Summit, the 2019 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference kicked off this past Monday, where analysts, officials, and scholars gathered in D.C. to discuss the future of arms control and U.S. nuclear policy. Among the top concerns were the new threat from emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), the future of U.S.-Russia strategic relations after the collapse of the INF treaty, and the status of U.S.-North Korea denuclearization negotiations. Each issue comes with challenges, from human error to technical capability, and many of the first day's panelists admitted that the future of arms control was uncertain.

North Korea and Denuclearization

To start, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, insisted that the recent Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi was not a complete failure, arguing that the president has “created the space for many constructive things to happen.”

Whatever the future of U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks might look like, Biegun made clear that Trump would not be looking to imitate former President Obama’s strategic engagement with Iran. Biegun cited the Iran deal (JCPOA) as a failure of legislation because it failed to account for Iran’s activity with Hezbollah.

“The Iran deal wasn’t about Hezbollah, it was about nuclear weapons,” Moderator and New York Times Pentagon correspondent Helene Cooper reminded him.

However, Biegun pushed back, arguing that the U.S. should not have pursued such a “narrowly-focused agreement” at all. He added, the future of U.S.-North Korea diplomatic relations will be an “all or nothing” strategy, wherein denuclearization would not happen as a process of incremental stages.

“Nothing can be agreed until everything is agreed,” he said.

It’s hard to see how this could be a winning strategy. Biegun did not comment on the diplomatic strategy moving forward but noted that President Trump has been laying out a "rich economic vision for North Korea's future prosperity," citing the country's natural resources as a point for potential growth.

Beyond this, it’s unclear what exactly this “economic” vision entails.

The U.S.-Russia Relationship

In addition to concerns about North Korea, panelists debated the future of U.S.-Russia relations and arms control. In between exchanging jests with his fellow panelist, Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov insisted that the U.S. and Russia were not enemies.

“The United States is not our adversary. It’s up to the U.S. to decide who we are for you,” he told the audience multiple times.

Sitting next to him, Jim Miller, the former U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, disagreed.

"Allies don't negotiate on arms control," he reminded Antonov.

On a similar note, partners and treaty signatories don't back out on signed agreements. But the U.S. did precisely that when President Trump announced in May 2018 that America would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. In addition to undoing years of negotiations with Iran, the pullout signals to U.S. allies and potential partners that America is willing to renege on its commitments.

Mr. Antanov admitted that he lacked confidence for the future of arms control treaties. “We don’t want to see the same situation that we see today on the JCPOA,” he noted.

This calls into question the potential for a renegotiation of the New START treaty between his country and the U.S. In this case, negotiating a successful New START may be hindered by both lack of political will and logistical considerations. In an earlier panel that day, Sergey Rogov, with the Russian Academy of Sciences, insisted that Russia was ready to agree to extend the New START for another five years, giving the U.S. and Russia time to negotiate on new provisions.

At the same time, Antanov and Miller agreed that implementing the New START didn’t seem likely in the near future. Moderator Olga Oliker, senior advisor and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS, brought the logistical constraints that negotiators faced.

In less than a year, Oliker noted, the U.S. faces another presidential election. If the current administration fails to agree to implement a New START, and if Trump is voted out of the White House, the incoming president would have just weeks to negotiate a New START before the treaty expires in 2021.

Would Russia be willing to sign such a treaty, with a new American administration, in such a short timeframe?

“No,” Antonov answered flatly. Russia would need more time for dialogue and discussion on the terms.

So long as the current circumstances hold, the hopes for renegotiating a New START before the existing treaty expires remain dim.

Command and Control Vulnerability

What else keeps nuclear analysts up at night? One recurring theme throughout the conference was the open question of emerging technologies, namely artificial intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity.

Command and control (or C2), the system by which nuclear states process and respond to threats, involves a series of procedures, each step of which is open to new vulnerabilities. On the technical end, both software and hardware are susceptible to cyber attacks; on the other, there remains the risk of human error and misperception.

Lyu Jinghua, a visiting scholar with the Cyber Policy Initiative at the Carnegie Endowment, spelled out the irony: nuclear deterrence is only effective when there is clear communication to other actors about how powerful the system is. Cybersecurity, by contrast, works best when actors maintain secrecy about the extent of their capabilities.

A direct cyber (or other) attack on a country’s command and control system may not be entirely likely, but it may be on the one non-nuclear threat to which a state would respond with nuclear force, argued Austin Long, a Nuclear Policy Advisor to the Joint Staff J5.

Even with the collapse of the INF treaty, there are preventative measures that the U.S. and Russia (as well as other nuclear actors) can take. For one, all nuclear states share the universal vulnerability of misperception. Going forward, actors must be willing to engage in some transparency, argued Dr. Heather Williams, a lecturer at King’s College London’s Defence Studies Department and Centre for Science and Security Studies.

Overall, the context of the conference was marked by the U.S. withdrawal arms control treaties, raising serious concern about upholding the nuclear of the nuclear non-proliferation regime outside of legal and bilateral frameworks. Working with Russia and North Korea on arms control and nuclear weapons has always been difficult, but the waning adherence to treaties makes future negotiations all the more difficult.

As Dr. Williams dimly noted, “We have to face the reality that we’re approaching a post-arms control world.”


Tabitha Sanders is an editorial intern with the Washington Monthly.



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