Nuclear weapons are perceived as an old story, especially after the end of the Cold War. The issue is still alive and still controlled by the United States and Russia. Currently, however, only one treaty remains that addresses nuclear arms control, the New START, which entered into force in 2011 for a ten-year period and was recently extended for five years. Although Europe is not directly involved in the treaty, it is of paramount importance for its security, as in the event of conflict it would be a likely impacted territory, both by possible intentional out-of-targets attacks and certainly by nuclear fallouts. The European Union, given its geographical and political position, has both the interest and strength to play a role in new negotiations.
When President Biden was elected, the negotiation process for an updated agreement was at a stalemate and to avoid its expiration, he agreed to Moscow’s proposal to extend it for its maximum timespan, five years. This collaborative approach firmly distanced him from his predecessor, but although it can be argued that the Trump administration's disruptive approach to foreign policy may also have affected the New START negotiations, this impasse can be associated with a longer story.
Since the end of the Cold War, the world has developed into a fragmented and complex system. As a consequence, interests on both sides have changed: new issues, such as the rise of China, have captured Washington’s attention, while Moscow’s focus has shifted towards economic recovery, military revitalisation and influence consolidation in the post-Soviet states. The result has been a lower effort for cooperation and an increased tendency towards uncompromising behaviours.
The new geopolitical (dis)equilibrium in which the two superpowers are no longer in control of their former spheres of influence, witnesses mid-level nuclear states able to exploit the new technologies for military purposes in a legal and political vacuum that can make them extremely dangerous for international stability. Indeed, technological innovations such as cyber warfare, tactical nuclear weapons or nuclear-armed drone torpedoes, can provide them with disruptive and destructive capacity, thus contributing to further instability and insecurity.
Recognising that the established nuclear order no longer corresponds to the changing balance of power, the Trump administration sought to expand the New START negotiations to China, while Moscow proposed to involve France and the United Kingdom. However, none of these prospective partners is willing to engage in negotiations to limit or even reduce their nuclear arsenal, given the clear disproportionality with the two superpowers.
In principle, without any additional aspect that can introduce well-recognized benefits for all the participants, any trilateral or five-side negotiation would not be an effective process: the disproportionality of forces would result in crossed vetoes, informal sub-talks and alliances, dystopic outcomes. Moreover, such negotiations would exclude the emerging nuclear states (India, Pakistan, North Korea) that would not be bound by any formal constraint.
A multilateral and multidimensional approach would therefore be effective if it addresses: a) the number of nuclear weapons owned by nuclear countries (United States, Russia, China, France, United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, North Korea, Israel), and b) the technological developments that, while making weapons highly sensitive and fast responding, make them highly vulnerable and subject to human and/or technological fallibility.
In this complex geopolitical scenario, what role can the EU aspire to play? In 2016, the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini presented ‘A Global Strategy for the EU’, which mentioned for the first time ‘the ambition of strategic autonomy for the European Union’ which also involves the security defence sector. Since then, a number of unprecedented decisions have been taken (e.g., the creation of the European Defence Fund and the envisaging of a Permanent Structured Cooperation framework) to pave the way for a structural European defence policy. These major achievements were unpredictable just a few years ago and are also the consequence of the new American pivot to Asia and the resulting slow disengagement from Europe. The combination of interconnected factors, namely Washington’s estrangement and a more complex international scenario, has prompted the EU to start developing its own security and defence strategy.
Recently, the EU High Representative Joseph Borrell welcomed the extension of the New START and called for a new level of ambition in nuclear arms control – a sign that the EU recognises the need for a widened approach in addressing nuclear arms’ proliferation and that it has a common position on the issue. Non-proliferation can therefore represent a first point of convergence for EU member states to start overcoming the political stalemates that are still present when trying to shape 'strategic autonomy' and pave the way for a new international role. Moreover, Biden's sharp statement in which he referred to Putin as ‘a killer’, stands in contradiction to the expected appeasing approach, thus reflecting a fluctuating and still not entirely defined American strategy. In other words, there is room for the EU to act.
To do so, beyond the ‘traditional’ diplomatic efforts, the EU can leverage its presence in a number of international fora. The Council of Europe, where Russia is a member and the US an observer, focuses on human rights and can be the right forum to raise awareness about the effects of atomic weapons on living beings. The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), which includes the US and Russia, is the world's largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization dealing with arms control and can represent the technical platform to address the military aspects of the issue. Finally, when enough attention is raised, the United Nations constitute the most appropriate institution where such talks can be developed. The EU can act as a first substantial engine to mobilise, catalyse and merge interests through its unique type of presence in the UN: thanks to its 27 EU members, plus the status of permanent observer, and France, a nuclear state and permanent member of the Security Council, it could raise a critical mass able to put a non-proliferation multilateral dialogue high on the agenda. By activating all the appropriate international platforms, the EU can work to gather interests, lead the discussion and have a seat at the negotiation table.
The extension of the New START and the need for a new agreement represent an opportunity for the EU to take the initiative on the topical issue of nuclear arms control, to position itself on the international scene as a credible actor in the security sphere and to lead a large-scale action to extend the negotiations, including mid-level powers in the discussion in order to achieve a new, more inclusive and therefore more stable and effective, multilateral agreement.
Cover image: An unarmed U.S. Air Force LGM-30G Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Dec. 17, 2013. By Yvonne Morales (Wikimedia).