U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture: Engaging in Nuclear Dialogue

This paper is part 2 of the 6-part series, U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture: Core Steps, 2018–2020.

It is dangerous for the United States, for Russia, and for the world when Washington and Moscow have very limited communication and virtually no dialogue on reducing nuclear risks. We have stark differences with Russia, but there are also areas of existential common interest—chief among them reducing the risk of a nuclear mistake or blunder—where all can and should agree that we must work together to avoid catastrophe, as we did during the Cold War. Other nuclear nations—including the United Kingdom, France, and China—must also be engaged in this new nuclear dialogue focused on reducing the risk of nuclear use. 

Engaging Russia on the parameters of a new nuclear dialogue is the crucial first step to reducing the risk of nuclear use between the United States and Russia—and globally. The objective of this new dialogue would be to re-establish as a core principle the goal of reducing the role and risks of nuclear weapons in global security policies as an essential part of Washington and Moscow’s overall security posture without jeopardizing the security of either of the parties or their allies—and develop specific steps consistent with this core principle. In addition to nuclear forces (strategic and tactical), a new dialogue must include over time missile defenses, prompt-strike capabilities, conventional forces, cybersecurity, and space.

Although the United States and Russia will have to work bilaterally to begin and advance key elements of an agenda to reduce the risks of nuclear use, both Europe and China will need to be engaged, and their perspectives taken into account. 

An immediate priority of this new dialogue should be to identify concrete, practical, near-term initiatives designed to reduce risks, rebuild trust, and improve today’s global security landscape. These near-term steps should be presented so that publics understand why they will make them safer and more secure.

Possible steps include:

1. Presidential Joint Declaration. The starting point for reducing nuclear dangers could be a new Presidential Joint Declaration by the United States and Russia confirming that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. This initiative is inherently presidential, could be agreed quickly, and would be positively received by publics. This initiative could include other states with nuclear weapons, in particular the UK, France, and China.

2. Military-to-military communication. Elevating bilateral military-to-military dialogue between the United States and Russia, essential throughout the Cold War, should be an immediate and urgent priority. Within the Euro-Atlantic region, a new military crisis management group should also be instituted. The focus of these initiatives should be on reducing risks of a catastrophic mistake or accident by restoring communication and increasing transparency and trust—another initiative that publics would understand and support.

3. Cyber Dialogue. Cyberattacks from state or non-state actors can lead to the theft of nuclear materials or sabotage to a nuclear facility, false warning of a missile attack, or the intrusion into nuclear command and control systems. The aftermath of a cyberattack could be catastrophic, potentially leading to use of a nuclear weapon. Reducing and eliminating cyber nuclear risks is an existential common interest for all nations. Discussions with Russia and other states with nuclear weapons are imperative for reaching at least informal understandings on cyber dangers related to nuclear facilities, strategic warning systems, and nuclear command and control. These dangers should be urgently addressed to prevent the potentially catastrophic consequences of a cyberattack on a nuclear facility or war by mistake. As a first priority, recognizing the dynamic nature of the cyber threat, nations must continuously review and protect against the vulnerability of their nuclear warning and command and control systems to these threats. Nations should also work to develop and adopt “rules of the road” in the nuclear cyber world, including at the top of the list no cyberattacks on warning and command and control systems.

4. Dialogue with China. Regular and sustained bilateral nuclear dialogue between the United States and China is also essential for building transparency and trust. Although some nuclear issues may begin as bilateral points between the United States and China in the Asia-Pacific region, other nuclear issues might be multilateral, and still other nuclear issues might have broad implications for other regions. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs must be a top priority for discussions. Washington and Beijing must have a common understanding on overall regional security and then on goals and strategy for negotiations with North Korea, and work on this common understanding should be our focus.

5. P5 Nuclear Dialogue. A renewed P5 nuclear dialogue focused on tangible steps to reduce nuclear risks could be important to maintaining and strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The two leading nuclear powers—the United States and Russia—must lead, and other countries in possession of nuclear weapons must also contribute to a joint enterprise focused on decisively reducing nuclear risks.

6. Dialogue to prevent nuclear terrorism and a “dirty bomb.”Enhancing radiological security to prevent a dirty bomb attack could be advanced with a new U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism, working with other states with nuclear weapons.

A new nuclear dialogue with Russia and other states with nuclear weapons could be the beginning of a historic and long-overdue transformation of global nuclear policies. Most important, the process could assist countries in overcoming many of the political fears and divides that currently exist. Beyond security policy, it could also provide an impetus to cooperation on an even broader front, including economics, energy, and other vital areas.

February 1, 2018
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Engaging Russia on the parameters of a new nuclear dialogue is the crucial first step to reducing the risk of nuclear use between the United States and Russia—and globally.