‘This is not the Cold War redux; it is even worse than the Cold War.’ That’s how Nicolas Roche, of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, described the current climate around nuclear weapons.
Roche spoke at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, a veritable Woodstock for the nuclear policy community (organizers insisted on referring to the shindig as ‘#NUKEFEST’), which convened for two days in Washington, DC. Despite the party-like atmosphere at ‘Nuke Fest’, despondency pervaded the gathering.
North Korea received substantial attention at the conference, while Iran and South Asia were relatively neglected. The dominant topic of conversation, and predominant reason for despair, was the US-Russia relationship.
From Crimea, to Syria, to the Mueller investigation on Capitol Hill, the signs of strain and enmity between the two nations are everywhere. But it is in the nuclear arena where the stakes are highest.
The two superpowers (perhaps former superpower, in the case of Russia), control 90 percent of the world’s supply of nuclear arms. The de-escalation of nuclear tensions has been a must for diplomats on both sides since the Cold War’s climax. The traditional manner of doing this has been through arms control treaties, limiting both nuclear stockpiles, as well as the means of delivering them. But that system lies on the brink.
On February 1, the United States suspended the Reagan-Gorbachev era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, with Russia following suit the next day. As Mark Fitzpatrick, associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said at the conference, the INF Treaty’s collapse saw ‘a lot of experts draw the conclusion that strategic arms control is, if not dead, nearly so.’
‘I would actually push back on that assessment,’ replied the State Department’s Andrea Thompson. However, she did not defend the viability of the arms control system, choosing instead to defend the president’s withdrawal from the treaty. ‘The demise of the INF isn’t [the fault of] the Trump administration; the Russians violated this years ago. We’re finally upholding the standards and holding them accountable,’ Thompson said.