Since the end of the Cold War, a multipolar world order, ambiguous threat perceptions and asymmetrical arms race dynamics have given rise to an increasingly complex and dynamic international security environment.
Apart from the level of complexity in nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament and arms control matters, there is also complexity within the overall security environment. While nuclear weapons policy during the Cold War was full of uncertainty, the security environment was based around a comparatively simple bipolar structure. Today, on the other hand, the security environment is shaped by complex, intertwined and dynamic factors, and nuclear decision-making remains beset by unknowns.
Several factors can serve as a basis for comparing the Cold War security environment with that of today: a) the changing type of world order; b) threat perception; and c) arms race dynamics.
Bipolar vs multipolar world order
During the Cold War, the world order was based on a bipolarity, shaped around the policies of the US and the Soviet Union. In general, understanding the world order required the study of two great powers, and the policies of these powers were often determined by each other’s capabilities and intent. Moreover, from the 1960s onwards arms-control treaties increased the degree of transparency and reinforced the bipolarity of the security environment. In such a world order, there was still uncertainty, mainly due to elevated tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. As a result of these tensions, the two powers came to the brink of war in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis, which consequently led to a level of strategic stability with the establishment of the Washington–Moscow communication hotline, nuclear test ban treaties and the NPT, among others.
Today, the number of states that can access strategic assets has increased. Although military power is still a significant factor in defining world order, other types of power, including economic, cultural, technological and societal factors, have become determining factors. Increased competition is driving not only states but also the private sector to capitalize on investing in science and technology.
Threat perception was static during the Cold War period, having evolved around nuclear weapon states and the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of their capabilities. Both the US and the Soviet Union shaped their nuclear policies around the survivability of their nuclear forces from a first strike: thus, second-strike capability was vital to deter the adversary. From 1985, the ‘Gorbachev era’ (when Mikhail Gorbachev was general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) signalled a shared understanding of the security environment between the US and the Soviet Union despite differences in approaches, and led in November 1985 to an important joint statement with US president Ronald Reagan, with both sides asserting that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. Thus, the two leaders defined their aspiration under the framework of preventing nuclear war.
The Reagan–Gorbachev statement was reaffirmed on 3 January 2022 in a statement released by the five NPT-recognized nuclear weapon states (China, France, Russia, the UK and the US). Within a matter of weeks, however, this reaffirmation had come under scrutiny. Having launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced three days later that Russia’s nuclear forces were to be placed on high alert. Following this announcement, voters participating in a referendum in Belarus approved a constitutional change that allows for the hosting of nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory. Current Russian nuclear signalling involves mixed messaging, and a blurring of the lines between deterrence and compellence.
Today, nuclear weapon states have different understandings of what constitutes risk and threat. Moreover, the ways in which nuclear weapon states view warfighting differ from state to state – for instance, while some have a ‘no first use’ policy, signalling that these weapons serve deterrence purposes and are not intended for warfighting, others believe that such a policy might undermine deterrence.
In the 21st century, emerging disruptive technologies have also added to the complexity of threat perception. Cyber, outer space capabilities, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies do not operate in isolation from nuclear technology: thus, they play a role in warfighting. The interplay across these technologies, both with each other and with nuclear weapon systems, including nuclear command, control and communication, have thus far resulted in complexity, with limited governance solutions.
Arms race conditions: nuclear vs emerging technologies
During the Cold War, the arms race between global powers extended into both the nuclear and conventional weapons fields. Even then, false perceptions held by each side about the other’s capabilities triggered an increase in investment in nuclear weapon programmes on the part of nuclear-armed states.
Today, arms races occur asymmetrically across different technology areas, including in missile technology, quantum computing, communications and sensor technologies, and counter-strike capabilities in outer space. Traditional arms race dynamics (such as the offence–defence dilemma and the reciprocal escalation of weapons and weapons systems), and theoretical arms race assumptions are no longer fit for purpose in today’s world order, as technological racing intertwines with defence policies. Technological complexity also has an impact on ‘the rationality assumption governing today’s nuclear decision-making process’. Given the spread of technological advancements and the interconnected nature of most of these technologies with each other and with nuclear weapons command, control and communications, traditional arms race considerations need to evolve to meet the needs of today’s security concerns. Moreover, the traditional policy of nuclear deterrence needs to account for developments in technological capability and adapt to the changes dynamically. Such adaptation is possible by embracing the framework of complex adaptive systems.