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The treaties that make the world safer are struggling

Agreement on arms control is getting harder, but it still really matters.

illustration of a person pushing bombs along an abacus Bita Honarvar/Vox; Getty Images/Collection Mix: Subjects RF
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

UNITED NATIONS, Geneva — There was a stretch in December’s late-stage negotiations that seemed pretty bleak. Russia was mad, mostly that no one would entertain its made-up claims of a US-funded bioweapons program in Ukraine. Iran was mad, apparently about sanctions. And everyone was haggling over language in the final review document for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the nearly 50-year-old international treaty that prohibits states from developing or deploying biological weapons.

Diplomats, delegations, and experts feared this is where the review conference (or “RevCon,” as it’s known) might stall out. The review, which takes place every five years, is intended to make sure the BWC is still operating and being implemented effectively in the current era. Reaching consensus among more than 180 countries on what that means is always a huge task. This time, spillover from geopolitical tensions — capped by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — made these talks even messier.

But after three weeks of discussions that ended about a week before Christmas, the BWC RevCon ended up a modest success. The parties basically agreed to agree to keep talking, establishing a working group, which would meet for a little more than two weeks each year and deal with a long, long list of issues related to the BWC, including evaluating developments in science and technology and potential verification and compliance measures. And the unit that implements the convention would get another staff member. A team of three people tasked with helping to keep the world free of bioweapons became four.

“Modest,” then, is doing a lot of work. But in this geopolitical climate, you take what you can get.

“I’m sure if the international context had been different, we would have achieved much, much more,” Ambassador Leonardo Bencini, permanent representative of Italy to the Conference on Disarmament and the president-designate of the Ninth Review Conference on the Biological Weapons Convention, told Vox in December. “But, as I said, given the situation, we have to be pleased that we managed at least to break the deadlock.”

Bencini echoed the statement from United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who called the BWC result “a glimmer of hope in an overall bleak international security environment.”

“We were very worried that if we did not get this, we don’t know what might happen to the future of these disarmament negotiations in the multilateral system,” Bencini added.

Because, right now, the arms control movement is facing something of a tough moment.

The state of global arms control is not great

Take the BWC: The norm against the deliberate use of biological weapons is largely still intact, but political wrangling — this year, and in many years past, including from the US — has stymied progress, leaving limited breakthroughs to stand as accomplishments. And that means the world is still pretty far away from really strengthening the convention, making it more relevant and responsive to the technological and scientific advances that are changing the nature of biothreats.

Other arms control conventions have faced similar challenges. This year, Russia blocked agreement on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, apparently over objections to a clause referencing the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine. In November, Russia also last-minute canceled technical talks with the United States on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last nuclear arms control treaty between Washington and Moscow still standing.

Russia has certainly played a starring role as an increasingly isolated spoiler in these forums, which is happening against the backdrop of the Kremlin’s invasion and assault on Ukraine, itself a gross violation of international law. Moscow’s attack also increased the risk of a possible nuclear confrontation between Russia and the US and its NATO allies. Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised the specter of a nuclear attack.

The Ukraine war and its fallout may be among the biggest current threats to global stability. But Russia is not alone. China is expanding its nuclear arsenal and has rebuffed attempts to engage bilaterally on arms control with the US even as the competition between Washington and Beijing escalates. North Korea is likely closing in on more nuclear tests. Tensions simmer between nuclear powers India and Pakistan. The United States tore up the Iran deal during the Trump administration, one of a few arms control treaties Washington exited in recent years, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement (INF) and the Open Skies Treaty, which allowed for unarmed reconaissance flights. The latter two exits chipped away at the arms control regime with Russia, even as the US had very valid claims of Russian noncompliance.

These arms control agreements, both bilateral and multilateral, are supposed to be the guardrails in times of global crisis, not unlike the one we’re in now.

“Arms control, historically, did a great deal to make threats and the understanding of threats a lot more predictable, and I think that led to a mutual balance and led to a relatively stable mass destruction weapons system worldwide for decades,” said John Gilbert, a retired US Air Force colonel and senior science fellow with the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation’s Scientists Working Group.

But technology is advancing, disinformation is spreading rapidly, and geopolitics are shifting, especially with the rise of authoritarians and anti-democratic forces, who may value disruption above more stable state-to-state relations. That fuels a precarious loop: Tensions make the talks and trust needed to reach deals that much harder, and that, in turn, makes these treaties no longer fit for purpose in the current moment.

All that may lead to a world where an arms race eclipses arms control. “We do not need to take that decision to react — that would be my hope for some governments, not to fall into the rearmament trap,” said Maren Vieluf, an arms control expert and researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.

Experts strongly caution that we’re not there yet. The multilateral infrastructure is still operating, albeit with more and more limitations and snags.

“One question to ask yourself in each case is: What would we do if it wasn’t there — and would the situation be better or worse? And in most cases, I’d say the situation would be worse,” Richard Cupitt, senior fellow and director of Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention at the Stimson Center, told Vox in December.

How did we get here?

What fits into arms control is pretty broad. It includes restrictions on weapons of mass destruction, like nukes and chemical and biological weapons. It can cover certain conventional weapons and autonomous weapons, and other tools of war. There are major multilateral treaties like the BWC, or the Chemical Weapons Conventions. And there are really important bilateral treaties, like those between Russia and the United States, that put limits on arms and create transparency to avoid miscalculation or confrontation. Put simply, these all help establish international norms that, ideally, make the world safer.

And the world is safer because of these efforts. The number of people killed in wars between states has declined since the end of World War II. The United States deployed atomic bombs in World War II, but nuclear weapons have not been used since. Bans on conventional weapons like land mines and cluster munitions and blinding laser weapons have not eliminated their use in conflict but have nonetheless, and over time, helped build norms against their use.

A lot of what makes up our arms control regime, particularly around weapons of mass destruction, was shaped during the Cold War period, with two nuclear-armed superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, anchoring the global order. That is one of the obvious challenges the current arms control apparatus faces.

“The whole infrastructure of this idea of arms control, and these bilateral and multilateral agreements, were created at a particular time and in a particular world, for a very specific purpose,” said Laura Considine, an associate professor of international politics who specializes in global nuclear politics at the University of Leeds. “And so we’re left with this very, I think, rigid structuring of institutions that is premised on Cold War, bilateral relationships, and the superpowers, and that’s just fundamentally not where we are anymore.”

Technologies have changed since the 20th century, too, and while these treaties serve as foundations, they also need to account for developments and respond to new risks and threats.

Right now, geopolitical divides make actually coming to an agreement on any updates difficult. It is hard to pinpoint a precise turning point of when things started souring because these kinds of arms control agreements are inherently difficult to make, requiring relationship-building, public pressure, and political will, all of which ebbs and flows. But a real erosion of trust among countries like the US and Russia has become a roadblock to shoring up some of these institutions.

Though some of these arms control treaties may have helped avert catastrophe during the Cold War, they may have seemed less necessary after the fall of the Soviet Union; the George W. Bush administration, for example, pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a 1972 treaty with the then-Soviet Union, arguing it had outlived its purpose and prevented America from building up its defense post-9/11. A broader complacency might also have set in, in part because arms control worked, which perhaps led policymakers to underestimate the threat, say, of proliferation and advances in technological capabilities.

The last few years may have accelerated some of these trends. Trump, for example, withdrew the US from multiple arms control treaties, like the INF and Open Skies Treaty. But then the Biden administration did not seek to rejoin, citing legitimate Russian rule-breaking. Experts said authoritarian swings — in Russia under Putin, but also in China under Xi Jinping, and rightward shifts in established democracies — also make it harder to make deals. Leaders are less accountable to their publics (who, hey, probably don’t want to die in a nuclear war) but also may see value in gaining an edge over their global rivals.

Disinformation, and the quick spread of it, is a tool to undermine the credibility of regimes; Russia, for example, keeps claiming the US is financing a bioweapons program in Ukraine, including designing bioagents that could target specific ethnic groups. It’s baseless propaganda, but it still serves to undermine the credibility of the institutions — in this case, the BWC. One leader or country can’t unravel an arms control agreement, but their actions and approach can degrade it, as Russia is doing right now.

“We all understand the value of arms control. And I think Russia understands the value of it, but they don’t care,” said William Alberque, director of strategy, technology, and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Peace and stability aren’t the things they want. They want risk in order to make us afraid, so that we’ll give stuff up.”

That kind of impasse also makes it harder to make future agreements, even if tensions thaw. As experts pointed out, lots of these arms control talks are technical — precise data on weapons and capabilities — but they also hinge on familiarity, trust, mutual respect. When people stop talking, it’s a lot harder to just restart negotiations because that trust erodes. Jessica Rogers, impact fellow at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), said this is the concern about the New START treaty, which is set to expire in 2026 and might not have a follow on. “Just not having that dialogue, it just creates a lot of pessimism among nuclear experts — or generally among arms control experts — because there’s no time really to negotiate a follow on to the expiring New START Treaty,” she said.

These treaties still matter, even if things look a bit bleak. And honestly, it’s not all bad.

Maybe the world where these treaties were forged doesn’t exist anymore, but they still matter — even if they’re imperfect, even if they are violated.

As experts said, the idea that you’re going to get a new legally binding treaty — even if that is what you ultimately want — just isn’t a reality in these current international and domestic climates.

“Treaties were written at a time when the world was different, and they need to exist; they need to exist as the foundations to ensure that there is something there,” said Anuradha Damale-Day, policy fellow and program manager at BASIC. “But I think there’s been more of a willingness because of everything that’s happened to find more innovative ways to problem-solve, that are more incremental, and that add together in their parts into something that is bigger.”

That incrementalism may seem quaint compared to the threat of nuclear apocalypse, but that may be the only option available right now. “It’s shifting right now to account for the reality that the situation has changed,” said Shannon Bugos, senior policy analyst at the Arms Control Association. “We know the traditional view of arms control is not necessarily what is best for the current moment.”

Instead, countries are focusing on things like strategic dialogues and crisis hotlines — at least we can call you if things get dicey. This kind of risk reduction is more fluid and informal, and not legally binding in the way of a treaty or convention. But it still serves to help change the norms and narratives and, most importantly, deescalate tensions.

There are other ways to establish arms-control systems, like political declarations. In November, 80 countries signed the first international declaration to protect civilians in populated areas, which commits states to restrict the use of explosive weapons in those areas, to reduce the harm posed to civilians, and to better assist victims of such attacks. Of course, attacks like this are still happening, but experts see it as a critical step to help make it less likely in the future.

“The fact that this is becoming more of a widespread understanding will hopefully save civilian lives down the road,” said Bonnie Docherty, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and a lecturer at Harvard Law. “So, yes, it’s not an overnight panacea. We know that it’s not immediately going to change the lives of the people in Ukraine, unfortunately. But it’s where things start to shift.”

Unilateral declarations by states — basically, a country saying we think this is bad, so we’re going to stop — also can influence the arms control discussion. A recent example: The Biden administration in April 2022 committed not to conduct direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile testing, a fancy way of saying the US won’t blow up stuff in space, which can be pretty destructive and leave behind debris. This was a major arms control initiative, and since then, a handful of other countries have made similar commitments. Sure, they’re mostly the US’s allies and partners, but all these efforts have to start somewhere.

And adopting universally shared norms against certain weapons or tactics is a slow, slow process. Geopolitical conflict or national interests can unravel or undermine that progress. As of November 2022, more than 91 countries had signed on to a treaty to ban nuclear weapons (admittedly, none of them nuclear powers). Yet this was also the year the world fretted about what might happen if Putin used a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine; people rushed to buy iodine pills in Europe.

This is exactly the kind of climate arms control treaties are designed for, to stop threats from spiraling. Arms control agreements only work, though, when states trust that their enemy is going to abide by the rules. Without that, countries may see less value in reducing risks than in trying to rearm to prevent them.

The fear is that the world might creep toward the brink of a very real disaster to tip that balance back. “Do we have to go through a Cuban missile crisis moment for people to understand the value of arms control — or is this just the new era of risk until we do stumble into a crisis or disaster?” Alberque said.

This reporting was made possible by a grant from Founders Pledge.