CSIS European Trilateral Track 2 Nuclear Dialogues

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2020 Consensus Statement

The European Trilateral Track 2 Nuclear Dialogues, organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in partnership with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique (FRS), have convened senior nuclear policy experts from the United Kingdom, France, and the United States (P3) for the past 12 years to discuss nuclear deterrence, arms control, and nonproliferation policy issues and to identify areas of consensus that serve to improve collaboration and cooperation across this range of challenging concerns. The majority of the experts are former U.S., UK, and French senior officials; the others are well-known academics in the field. Since the Dialogues’ inception, high-level officials from all three governments have also routinely participated in the discussions.

The Dialogues have been unique in bringing senior U.S., UK, and French representatives into a Track 2 trilateral forum for discussing nuclear policy. The United States, United Kingdom, and France hold common values and principles directed toward a shared purpose of sustaining global peace and security, as well as an understanding of their respective roles as responsible stewards of the nuclear order. Their sustained engagement will thus remain unique in the context of international alliances and partnerships and will continue to be essential into the foreseeable future, irrespective of political shifts in any of the three countries.

In 2020, the group’s discussion addressed a range of growing challenges in the Euro-Atlantic security environment and beyond, prompting the group’s nongovernmental participants to issue the following statement reflecting the consensus views of the undersigned. All signatories agree to this statement in their personal capacities, which may not represent the views of their respective organizations.

Deterring Russia in Europe While Managing Strategic Deterrence 

Russia’s increasingly antagonistic and competitive behavior with the West remains a major driver of nuclear risk for the transatlantic relationship. Russia continues to press for strategic advantage and hold diplomatic high ground by operating below the threshold of war, in what many in the West now call the “gray zone.” Russia is particularly active in non-kinetic and non-military operations—many of which are carried out by groups such as the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) or the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR)—designed to undermine Western democracies. In 2020, such gray-zone activities included widespread disinformation on Covid-19, election interference, and attacks on political dissenters, notably the Novichok poisoning of Alexei Navalny. At the same time, a range of gray-zone provocations, including air and sea military intercepts, widespread cyberattacks, and aggressive posturing in space, create underappreciated prospects for conflict and escalation and should be a priority area for risk reduction. Deterrence alone will not be sufficient to cope with gray-zone competition and aggression; successful efforts to counter Russian sub-conventional aggression will also depend on defense, minimization of vulnerability, and disruption activities.

At the strategic level, Russia has continued to modernize its nuclear weapons while fielding novel nuclear-weapons systems such as hypersonic glide vehicles and dual-capable long-range precision strike systems, as well as expanding its space and counterspace operational capabilities. This is occurring as the future of bilateral arms control between Russia and the United States faces significant challenges. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last bilateral arms control treaty between the two largest nuclear arsenals, will expire on February 5, 2021 unless extended. As the United States transitions to a new administration, it is imperative to prioritize extending New START and blazing a path for a follow-on treaty that protects allies from shorter-range systems and constrains novel systems. At the same time—in light of the evolving security environment with Russia—the United States, United Kingdom, and France must proceed apace with efforts underway in all three countries to sustain and modernize their nuclear forces.

The United States, United Kingdom, and France need to better understand Russian behavior and integrate it into nuclear-deterrence thinking and planning and the development of more effective risk-reduction measures. Accordingly, there is strong support from the group for re-engaging in strategic stability talks with Russia that take into account the full range of strategic challenges driving the current, protracted competition between Russia and the P3. Furthermore, military-to-military and defense-to-defense talks have historically played a vital role in managing conflict and tension between the United States and Russia. While we appreciate the importance of holding the line regarding Russia’s regional aggression and the reluctance to let it conduct business as usual, military-to-military contacts are important for operational deconfliction and crisis management and should be renewed. These contacts, which should exist at a sufficiently senior level and with a high degree of transparency, provide a means to deescalate military tensions while acknowledging that Russia’s aggressive behavior remains an obstacle to more normalized relations. 

On arms control, we support extending New START while the United States and Russia simultaneously move to negotiate a follow-on treaty to address a range of challenges, including those posed by nonstrategic nuclear weapons and advanced delivery systems. We recognize the U.S.-Russian arms control efforts do not exist in a strategic vacuum, but rather in the context of tense North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-Russian relations and Russia’s history of serious violations of existing arms control measures. Nevertheless, verifiable, comprehensive arms control efforts remain an essential, stabilizing component for effective deterrence. Consultation and coordination with NATO and allies such as the United Kingdom and France will be critically important.

China’s Nuclear Buildup: Less or More than Meets the Eye? 

China’s nuclear modernization program has raised mounting concerns given the force’s growth, diversification into new capabilities, lack of transparency, and indicators that China may be developing a launch-on-warning posture. Furthermore, according to some public estimates, China is expected to double the size of its nuclear stockpile over the next decade while also pursuing a nuclear triad. China’s rise as a global strategic competitor will require greater consideration and focus from NATO at a time when fiscal pressures, an ongoing pandemic, and security threats in the European theater continue to require resources and attention. This is a challenge that must be met.

Moreover, as China’s strategic military capabilities grow, other forms of risk management—such as arms control, confidence-building measures, and strategic stability talks—must play a bigger role. At the same time, China will likely remain reluctant to come to the negotiating table, especially if that entails direct participation in preexisting U.S.-Russia frameworks such as New START. Rather than multilateralizing New START, discussions on nuclear confidence building and risk reduction with China, to the degree they can be achieved, should initially rely on bilateral and P5 consultative mechanisms. The Chinese public’s evolving attitude toward the country’s nuclear weapons could also influence arms control. There is a new level of popular interest in nuclear weapons within China, which might provide a time-limited opening for discussion.

We recognize that arms control with China will likely look significantly different from the traditional agreements of the Cold War and post–Cold War era. Instead of numerical reductions, arms control with China could focus on risk reduction to address emerging technology and non-nuclear strategic systems within a multilateral framework. Furthermore, the P3 will need to address who should be included in arms control with China, what incentives will get China to the table, and how to address the increasing entanglement of conventional and nuclear capabilities.

The Future of Nuclear Deterrence in Europe

NATO’s nuclear-sharing agreements were first implemented during the Cold War to forward deploy air-launched U.S. nuclear weapons, counter the proliferation of nuclear arsenals in Europe, foster alliance cohesion, and strengthen nuclear deterrence. Nuclear sharing in Europe reinforces recognition of the role that nuclear weapons play in alliance security and broadens participation, engagement, and dialogue on nuclear deterrence. Today, U.S. nuclear weapons continue to be hosted at NATO basing nations, but domestic and public opinion in these countries remains divided, raising doubts and questions about the future of nuclear burden sharing. Recent debates about European sovereignty and autonomy have animated discussions of both conventional and nuclear burden sharing and perspectives on the roles and responsibilities for collective defense.

In general, we believe NATO must expand and intensify its efforts to increase the level of understanding regarding nuclear deterrence, arms control, and strategic stability in each of NATO’s 30 nations and to build a broader base of support for the NATO nuclear mission so that governments can discuss nuclear issues with the public. Additionally, regarding potential adjustments in nuclear force posture, declaratory policy, or other elements of U.S. nuclear policy that affect allies and partners, it is essential that such a consideration be made in close consultation with allies and partners who depend on U.S. security assurances and without prejudice to the credibility of NATO’s deterrence. In this context, sustaining the independent UK and French nuclear deterrents is also relevant. Above all, the P3 must work to rebuild the credibility, cohesion, and unity of the alliance and further the bonds of transatlantic partnership that are at the foundation of NATO’s enduring strategic value.

The P3 and NATO will also need to address the question of whether NATO membership can in any way be reconciled with being signatory to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which is set to enter into force on January 22, 2021. Upon entry into force, the TPNW will, as a matter of international law, bind only those nations that are party to it. We do not see participation in the TPNW as consistent with NATO membership and the role of nuclear weapons in our collective defense. Rather, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and its associated safeguards remain the foundation of global efforts to prevent and rollback nuclear proliferation and to achieve the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Renewed and public P3 leadership in pursuit of nuclear responsibility, transparency, and risk reduction is essential, especially ahead of the rescheduled NPT Review Conference. The P3 governments should develop and communicate a broader narrative on the value of and justification for nuclear weapons in our collective security and make clear their support for arms control agreements that are verifiable, enforceable, and contribute to security and stability. Finally, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom should join with Russia and China in unequivocally restating the solemn conviction that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

The Implications of Covid-19 and Other Future Shocks

The Covid-19 pandemic has continued to highlight pressure points and vulnerabilities to infectious disease—including the exposure and illness of various senior government officials and of personnel and supply chains supporting armed forces, such as nuclear forces—leaving many questions as to its long-term effects on the global security landscape. Pandemic mitigation and control measures, including travel restrictions, quarantine requirements, mandatory closures, and screening measures, have primarily been made at the national level and have varied greatly. Additionally, as governments continue to divert resources to combat the pandemic, there have been some calls to cut military budgets and reinvest in pandemic preparedness. 

While the Covid-19 era has been challenging, it also offers strategic opportunities and a reminder of the importance of a collective approach to deterrence and defense. NATO nations have faced aggressive gray-zone activities, from cyberattacks and disinformation tactics (including spreading harmful misinformation on the pandemic) to troop movements along borders. In the face of such pressures, the P3 must maintain the credibility, security, and effectiveness of their nuclear forces in the context of the collective security that sustains and encourages an enduring transatlantic partnership.

Finally, strategic modernization efforts must consider emerging technology and future shocks. This should include strengthening the resilience of nuclear-weapons systems against malicious cyberactivity, including reducing dependence on networked capabilities. We urge P3 governments to build personal, societal, and supply-chain resiliency in future thinking and planning. To the best of our knowledge Covid-19 did not have any significant impact on P3 nuclear preparedness, alert levels, and the like; however, it highlighted the importance of including nuclear safety and security in pandemic management and of transparent, public discourse. We believe the P3 should continue to promote and support initiatives that increase transparency where possible. Greater transparency with our publics can only increase trust in the government and established institutions, as well as decrease vulnerability to disinformation operations in any future crisis.

This report is made possible by the generous support of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

This report is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Rebecca Hersman