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A New Hope? The U.S. Election and Prospects for Arms Control

Anna-Katharina Ferl and Sascha Hach

This blogpost briefly reviews the last four years of U.S. policy on international arms control. Despite the particularly aggressive approach that has been pursued by the Trump administration, we see a high degree of continuity in the general neglect of arms control and collective security. This raises questions about how to think of new ways to repair and build up new arms control structures.

By Anna-Katharina Ferl and Sascha Hach

The state of the international arms control architecture ahead of the 2020 U.S. election is disenchanting. As observers have noted, multilateral arms control is in a period of intense crisis. Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the United States has pulled out of three treaties of immense international significance: the nuclear deal with Iran (JCPOA), the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as well as the Open Skies Treaty. Other agreements are continuously violated and ongoing arms control initiatives are obstructed. While the Trump administration has put multilateral arms control in dire straits, the root causes for this crisis are unlikely to go away should Trump fail in his reelection bid.

The end of proliferation regulation of U.S. armed drones

Not only did the United States pull out of a number of arms control treaties directly, the Trump administration has also encouraged the violation of others through bypassing certain treaty regulations. Earlier this year, the United States announced that it will allow the sale of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – armed drones – to foreign militaries. This constitutes a clear violation of the limits set by the – albeit voluntary – regulations of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), established in 1987. The MTCR’s 35 member states limit the proliferation of missiles and missile technology, particularly focusing on delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction. It is also the only international arms control regime explicitly incorporating drones with a payload larger than 500kgs and their proliferation. The U.S. rationale for bypassing the MTCR was growing competition from other countries, notably China, who are not part of the MTCR, and therefore not limited in their exports of armed drones.

As in so many other instances of revoking multilateral agreements – such as the threat to withdraw from the Arms Trade Treaty, the only treaty governing international arms trade – the case of scrapping export controls for drones shows that business dealings are more important to the Trump administration than concerns over international security and stability. While this development is worrying, it also confirms the overall picture of increased drone proliferation across the world, and mirrors the extensive U.S. use of UAVs that was made possible under the Obama presidency in the first place. Additionally, the few national accountability measures for the use of armed drones instated by the previous administration have been retracted over the last few years. As a result, U.S. drone operations have grown increasingly problematic and less transparent – the targeted killing of Iranian General Suleimani being a case in point. Bypassing the MTCR is only one piece in the overall puzzle of the normalization of remote warfare that took off under Obama and the recent neglect of international regulations. The proliferation and use of armed drones has steadily accelerated over the last decade, so much so that the consequences of the U.S. violating the MTCR are more symbolic than political. It must be noted, however, that with the U.S. drones, like the MQ-9 Reaper, more technologically sophisticated systems will enter the international market compared to the currently widely available Chinese or Turkish UAVs.

Gloomy prospects for the regulation of emerging technologies

An area of major concern for future arms control encompasses emerging technologies and the militarization of autonomy and artificial intelligence (AI), most prominently as lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS). Under the Obama administration the 2012 Department of Defense (DoD) Policy Directive 3000.09 outlines how to handle these new technologies. The directive was renewed in 2017 without significant changes. However, the Trump presidency comes at a time of ever increasing speed in technological developments, for civilian as well as military purposes, which calls for more decisive action. Thus far, the U.S. response to the challenges of emerging technologies, and the potential for international arms control, has generally been defensive. The Trump administration is actively encouraging developments in military AI, which reflects trends of other countries as well.

However, it has become increasingly clear that the U.S. is not interested in regulation of the military use of AI since discussions about LAWS have taken off in multilateral forums. The United States regards an international treaty banning LAWS as premature, arguing that existing international law would be sufficient and adequate. The field of autonomy and the use of AI in weapons systems have seen new developments under the Trump administration, while the U.S. defense budget for research and development in autonomy and the military use of AI has significantly increased. The U.S. DoD frequently points to the potential future benefits of autonomy in such systems: they would increase efficiency and effectiveness  and might even be more ethical and comply better with international humanitarian law. More important for understanding the Trump administration’s drive for military innovation is the desire to keep their technological advantage. Meanwhile, China is becoming the most serious competitor to U.S. power, but others like Russia are following suit. The U.S. perception of competition and rivalry can fuel competitive dynamics over AI systems that pose a significant danger for international peace and stability.

What had looked more like science-fiction under Obama has been made possible under Trump. This will affect how future presidents will deal with emerging technologies as it is becoming increasingly harder to turn away from this path. The Trump administration has shaped the way forward for the U.S. in terms of future technology and warfare.

Great power competition and the dismantlement of nuclear arms control

U.S. foreign and security policy is increasingly oriented toward and fueled by great power conflicts with China and Russia. This development was already underway before Trump and has a particularly negative impact on nuclear arms control. The trend also explains the unprecedented modernization programs for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which was already decided under Obama and expanded by the Trump administration. In fact, the threat posed by nuclear weapons and their delivery systems has steadily increased since Trump took office.

But what exactly is President Trump’s record and would a victory for Biden make a big difference? The focus on low-yield nuclear warheads that can be launched from submarines, and on medium-range and missile defense systems is the result of long-term pressure from U.S. military strategists. The Trump administration and the Republican majority in the Senate acted as a catalyst for their desires. The new US nuclear posture favors a dynamic of escalation that fits all too well with the president’s foreign policy style. Central arms control treaties have already fallen victim to this self-centered approach of U.S. strategic thinking. Looking at a longer period of time, the Trump administration, with the cancellation of the Iran Deal (JCPOA), the INF Treaty and Open Skies Treaty, has accelerated a process that began long before 2017 with the termination of the CFE regime and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

The erosion of arms control is also progressing as a result of Russian activities. Under Putin, the Russian government has spent decades trying to compensate for its own geopolitical decline by catching up with nuclear armament. The development of nuclear-armed underwater drones and hypersonic missiles bears witness to those efforts. But China and Iran are also taking part in this struggle for geopolitical influence and nuclear self-assertion. Beijing persistently pursues the expansion of its capabilities to reach the nuclear triad (air, land and sea-based nuclear weapons) and, according to the Pentagon, wants to double its arsenal to about 400 warheads in the coming years (the USA and Russia each have about 6,000 warheads). Iran, meanwhile, has increased its production of enriched uranium well above the limits set by the JCPOA. Even North Korea, with whose head of state Trump has been engaged in a curious exchange of expressions of affection since 2017, has resumed its tests of ballistic missiles and is pushing its nuclear program. One cannot say that these problems have only begun with Trump. But there is no sign of any achievement that could keep up with the historic arms control heritage of Gorbachev and Reagan that Trump has repeatedly referred to as example since the 2016 election campaign.

Freezing of the nuclear status quo and challenges of our time

The unexpected agreement with Putin just two weeks before the U.S. election on a one-year extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), including a freeze on the respective nuclear weapons stocks, does not help to repair the balance sheet and leaves questions of verification unanswered. It might provide advocates of arms control with a breathing space that can be used to restore greater stability. However, neither the Trump administration nor its challenger has any viable ideas on how the nuclear arms control architecture can be transferred into the new multipolar era involving China, France, Great Britain and the owner states India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, which are not recognized under international law. There are also no concepts and will for the urgently needed reduction of the strategic and sub-strategic nuclear capabilities of Russia and the United States to a level that could bring other nuclear powers into line with arms control and limitations. The demands of the non-nuclear weapon states for nuclear disarmament and a more balanced nuclear non-proliferation regime (NPT) will become more pressing with the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) on January 22, 2020, only days after the new U.S. president will take office.

U.S. presidential election will not decide on the future of arms control

The past four years show that, with a continuation of Trump’s antagonistic tactics, it will hardly be possible to make arms control fit for the challenges of our time. But even Biden’s previous statements on arms control and questions of global order point at best to conservative and restorative initiatives. Thus he stands for a further extension of New START, for the preservation of the Open Skies Agreement and the re-entry of the USA into the JCPOA. The overall sense of a ‘return to normalcy’ entailed in the hopes of many for a Biden administration could provide a path back to treaty compliance. However, with this alone, the arms control architecture will not meet today’s needs.

New structures are necessary, new decision-making mechanisms in the disarmament bodies and a dialogue on an equal footing with other states. Neither in the USA, nor in China or Russia are there any observable impulses for such a turnaround. It will depend all the more on other actors, including Germany, whether and to what extent polarization can be mitigated and the prestige of weapons technology and nuclear weapons be melted down.

Foto: Giancarlo Casem | Air Force Photo | Public Domain

Anna-Katharina Ferl

Anna-Katharina Ferl is a Research Associate and Doctoral Candidate at Peace Research Institutes Frankfurt (PRIF) “International Security” research department. Her research interest focuses on autonomous weapons systems, arms control as well as international norms.

Sascha Hach

Sascha Hach is a doctoral researcher in the research department “International Security” at Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF). His research interests include disarmament and arms control, nuclear weapons, German Foreign Policy and the United Nations. He has been the head of the Nuclear Free Future Award since 2020.

Publication with kind permission of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, www.hskf.de

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