Source: BASIC

Muhammad Shareh Qazi

Risk Reduction is defined in many ways, depending on how and in which context is being implemented. But a general consensus on risk reduction needs to be structured around a set of defined principles. These principles require consistency of communication and willingness of parties involved to actually opt for positive transformation and restriction on strategies that provide space for misinterpretation or misperceptions. The term also incorporates strategies that not only offer de-escalation of crises but can accommodate third-party mediation to temporarily cease hostilities and mitigate nuclear escalation. Within a nuclear risk reduction framework, states parties that are engaged are committed to primarily reducing the trust deficit among contending actors. Risk reduction measures are built on globally accepted norms and state parties executing such endeavors seem quite committed and dedicated to making the global nuclear order more secure. Major changes, however, occur when nuclear armed states decide to pursue a different path, withdrawing from binding treaties or engaging in new arms races in unregulated weapons domains. 

For example, when the United States under the Trump administration decided to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA, the US commitment to nuclear risk reduction felt fickle. Despite the fact that other stakeholders within the JCPOA Framework could have offered some support whilst fulfilling their commitments under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), their decision to let the US Government continue in a leadership capacity seemed as a sufficient scapegoat for avoiding any undue responsibility. Incentivising the US and Iran into an amenable set of principles for risk reduction was an option available at the disposal of other JCPOA member states and it could have provided some arrangements for a workable solution. Choosing to keep the JCPOA lurching seemed a collective step rather than a US-only decision and it hampered confidence in global nonproliferation practices. A step further, the Trump Administration further dismantled the already fragile arms control infrastructure when it decided to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty

Such withdrawals placed a lack of confidence and commitment towards global nonproliferation and risk reduction. Such measures also highlighted how nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states should re-prioritise risk reduction within their broader security considerations. Did the international community decide that nuclear responsibilities are either for designated institutions or predetermined stakeholders? Are there ranks and hierarchies of attributed responsibilities within the NPT framework? How do we determine the scale and magnitude of responsibilities within and beyond the crisis/conflict threshold? Answering these questions requires an approach founded on Nuclear Responsibilities and a focus on global nuclear norms that are grounded in states’ responsibilities. All states possessing nuclear technology – be it civilian or military – are equally responsible to engage constructively in global nuclear risk reduction . The purpose would not be to fit states into a ‘responsible-irresponsible’ dichotomy based on their practices, but to engage with them constructively and generate incentives for optimal compliance.

Withdrawing Treaties and Obligations

The U.S announced its withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 and, in 2019, it also withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) indicating how fragile the global nuclear nonproliferation regime compared to the threats that it was designed to address. Despite the fact that withdrawal from treaty obligations and international agreements is justified under national interest and state sovereignty, choosing to do it while also disregarding its consequences undermines commitments made in the first place. Even after the Biden administration indicated a serious intention to revive these arrangements, limited progress has been noted. Considering to keep the hiatus active creates a negative international sentiment and encourages erosion in other similar mechanisms within the nonproliferation regime. On the one hand, the U.S is noted to have withdrawn from such mechanisms to preserve state sovereignty and for national security reasons, while on the other, it has indicated an even more comprehensive adherence to nuclear risk reduction by re-engaging the international community. Such actions not only raise questions on the object, purpose and scope of arms control treaties but also on the functionality and credibility of international nonproliferation mechanisms.

North Korea or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been a genuine cause for concern in the international risk reduction mantra especially after it chose to withdraw from the NPT in 2003. This not only showed its commitment to continue disregarding global norms but also its intent to enhance its nuclear footprint further within its region of influence. The DPRK’s insistence on validly withdrawing from the NPT and national security rationale for more testing and missile production also indicates how, for some states, the nonproliferation regime might be perceived as discriminatory. After various efforts involving both sanctions and incentives, the DPRK decided to show some compliance towards risk reduction and eventually decided to dismantle its Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site in 2018. Recent indications of reconstructing this site and a barrage of new missile tests provides sufficient evidence that conventional risk reduction is deteriorating if not completely ignored. These new tests not only create global anxiety as to future actions by the DPRK, but also raise questions on the credibility of the DPRK’s leadership in adhering to the risk reduction commitments they made towards the international community.

An Hypersonic Arms Race?

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine is one thing, claiming to use hypersonic delivery vehicles is another. The use of these weapons in active conflict and positioning this claim as the first ever successful use of such weapons in war raises concerns for the international nonproliferation regime. Whether it was claiming to use air-launched hypersonic ballistic missile Kinzhal in combat or deploying Russian Navy’s frigate Admiral Gorshkov armed with Tsirkon hypersonic missiles, the aftershocks of disbanding the INF treaty are significantly felt. Such novel weapon systems complicate risk reduction during conflict, instead raising the prospects of new arms races. As the U.S also gears up to join the hypersonic club and Russia claims to be the only state with battle-tested hypersonic weapon systems, global arms control norms exhibit substantial caveats in preventing an impending global arms race instability. In this scenario, the problem is not only terminating the war itself but also the follow-up of an arms race between global stakeholders that can prelude to an even bigger conflict, if not a total disregard of the global arms control architecture.

Approaching Problems with the Nuclear Responsibilities Toolkit

The Nuclear Responsibilities Toolkit is a comprehensive set of stakeholder-centric inquisitions that provides an adequate platform for critical debate and discourse on how each stakeholder to nuclear nonproliferation can effectively calibrate their roles and intended goals. It is aimed at generating research and debate at the national, regional and international levels, promoting third-party facilitated dialogues for critical assessment of states’ responsibilities and their related policies and practices. It is also designed to critically assess case studies in order to determine an immediate response mechanism in situations that are likely to impact the global nuclear nonproliferation regime and conflicts/crises that require a more broad spectrum inquisition as to its vulnerabilities and opportunities for risk reduction. 

In the cases cited above, the assessment is that each state party has displayed indifference towards global norms on grounds that they either lack substance or are repetitive in their redressal of the problems. The repetition here attributed to problem solving refers to how states can use their national security narratives to circumvent nonproliferation commitments or indicate an inherent discrimination within the nonproliferation regime, or withdraw from treaty obligations on grounds of both discrimination and national security concerns. Not only was it convenient for the DPRK to withdraw from the NPT and continue to signal its intent on testing more missiles and nuclear devices, but a similar convenience was visible on the part of the U.S and Russia when they withdrew from the INF, initiating a prospective hypersonic arms race in the backdrop of a conflict. In this context, the Nuclear Responsibilities Toolkit could encourage reflections and deliberations around what can be done to preserve the global risk reduction architecture. The argument here is that if states feel marginalised by the nonproliferation regime itself, they should identify causes and seek to modify or seek amendments based on their interpretations. Choosing to withdraw or simply adding delays to commitments made is not an adequate strategy within the larger risk reduction paradigm. The same applies to abandonment of the JCPOA which, though not a treaty yet, continues to lose its efficacy in becoming a working solution towards Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 

Nuclear Responsibilities dialogues can be used to revisit global risk reduction norms by including more stakeholders to the conversation or by opening up a space for discussion on how to restructure the incentive-sanctions nexus implemented as standard procedure in such situations. Generating a broader debate and focusing on identifying caveats in nonproliferation and risk reduction mechanisms requires adding more interlocutors to the regime. Adding global arrangements like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) to not only maintain sophisticated monitoring of activities by DPRK but also to generate an environment for global consensus on forums like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference could be one recommendation. For withdrawals from treaty obligations and disenfranchisement leading to abandonment of agreed treaty objectives, focused debate between state parties can be encouraged.

Keeping in mind how global measures in addressing treaty-centric reservations are currently working, a new approach might be needed. Inclusive Nuclear Responsibilities dialogues can lead to revisiting treaty texts and related interpretations in ascertaining clauses that are either too vaguely interpreted or are outdated due to development of new global ground realities and notions. Treaty obligations are either understood from a preconceived standpoint or are adherent to standards set by predetermined qualifying criteria. The hiatus of the U.S on the JCPOA and the cessation of the INF Treaty was followed by a global impasse in revisiting treaty operability or adding new stakeholders that can offer some incentive in keeping arrangements from fracturing. Even after the change of administration in the US, no tangible steps have been taken to indicate willingness to revive these mechanisms, which indicates indifference. To avoid these barriers, formally reintroducing comprehensive risk reduction mechanisms on relevant global forums to seek affirmation or departure of key stakeholders can be a plausible outcome. This clarity is necessary as it brings perspective on changing the conventional global risk reduction norms. Such a formal reiteration can then be used for treaty amendments, introduction of new and interested stakeholders and a working plan for comprehensive engagement for redressal of crises.

For the prospective hypersonic arms race that seems inevitable as more states seem interested in hypersonic delivery vehicles and counter-hypersonic technologies, a rejoinder from the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) would be required. Approaching this new paradigm in arms race instability, assisting the MTCR and its subsidiary bodies to redraft terms of engagement as it is an informal export control regime to prevent development, proliferation and deployment of such weapon systems as a means to preempt an arms race instability aimed at ‘hypersonic ascendancy’. This redrafting can be aimed at formally instituting a permanent institution monitoring arms developments beyond traditional monitoring agencies already installed. They can also be aimed at introducing a new global arms race agreement in the form of a formal treaty aimed at discouraging hypersonic arms race before more states decide to follow suit.

By withdrawing from treaties, sidelining global arrangements, shelving risk reduction commitments and showing apathy towards risk reduction mechanisms and regulatory frameworks, the world is witnessing a revival of hostilities and competitive escalation. Introduction of new weapons technologies and their deployment in conflicts, refusing to adhere to commitments towards nuclear testing and rebuffing prior commitments, conventional global risk reduction has come at a crossroad. It would either have to eventually wither away for want of noncompliance or may be kept at the mercy of loose interpretations. Misperceptions and misinterpretation of such arrangements not only encourages a decline in global risk reduction norms but also identifies trends that can be duplicated to render catastrophic results. It also points to a possible partiality of risk reduction mechanisms towards states that have the capacity to outmaneuver treaties and globally agreed commitments. Approaching the issue through the Nuclear Responsibilities Toolkit allows for ascertaining fractures in the contemporary global nuclear norms and the implemented frameworks. This also allows for generating actor roles and redefining actor priorities towards global responsibilities and commitments. Not only does it pave the way for generating consensus and constructive discussion on the fractures and vulnerabilities of the international system, but it also provides solutions to how each issue can be dealt with jointly and severally.

This article is also published on the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) website.

Muhammad Shareh Qazi has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Punjab and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, the University of Punjab. He is the author of the book titled ‘Escalation Patterns in South Asia: Future Credible Minimum Deterrence’.