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Working with the Adversary

Great Power Cooperation and Nuclear Risk Management
Timothy P. McDonnell, Ph.D.
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The United States is engaged in long-term competition with two major nuclear-armed adversaries—China and Russia. Although each poses somewhat different threats, both states are revisionist powers capable of challenging the US, its allies, and its partners across the spectrum of conflict. For example, according to the 2022 US National Security Strategy,

The most pressing strategic challenge facing our vision is from powers that layer authoritarian governance with revisionist foreign policy. It is their behavior that poses a challenge to international peace and stability—especially waging or preparing for wars of aggression, actively undermining the democratic political processes of other countries, leveraging technology and supply chains for coercion and repression, and exporting an illiberal model of international order.

Together, China and Russia are the United States’ primary adversaries, and competition is the dominant lens through which we view our relations with them.

At the same time, the US also aims to cooperate as practicable with both Russia and China to manage nuclear risks. Because the potential harms of nuclear use and proliferation are so great and because all three great powers share an interest in avoiding these harms, US policy is to “continue to pursue engagement with other nuclear-armed states where possible to reduce nuclear risks.” This is not cooperation for cooperation’s sake. Such nuclear cooperation can enhance US security even in the context of broader competition.

Yet because of Russian and Chinese behavior in recent years, near-term prospects for pursuing this nuclear cooperation are dim. Opportunities to work together will likely be few and far between. Correspondingly, US officials would be wise to make the most of whatever opportunities might arise.

This paper aims to ensure that they are prepared to do so.

Research approach

CNA set out to answer the question, “When and how can competing great powers cooperatively manage the risks associated with nuclear use and proliferation?” We framed this question so that its answer would provide practical guidance on both when cooperation might work and how to increase the odds of success.

To answer that question, this study draws on international relations theory as well as three in-depth case studies of attempted great power nuclear cooperation: one in which such efforts failed (Eisenhower’s Open Skies proposal), one in which they were partially successful and then failed (the 1958–1961 nuclear test moratorium), and one in which they were successful (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nuclear sharing agreement that led to the Non-Proliferation Treaty). By studying both failures and successes, this study highlights factors that can contribute to both outcomes.

  • President Eisenhower’s 1955 Open Skies proposal. At the Geneva Conference on disarmament on July 21, 1955, Eisenhower dramatically proposed that the US and Soviet Union permit reciprocal overflights of one another’s territories to increase mutual confidence that neither side was preparing for war. On August 4, 1955, the Soviets definitively rejected the US “aerophotography” proposal. This case was an example of immediate failure.
  • The 1958–1961 US-Soviet nuclear test moratorium. On March 31, 1958, the USSR declared its intention to halt nuclear testing conditional on a US and United Kingdom agreement to do the same while negotiating a test ban treaty. Seven months and many hurried tests later, the moratorium was firmed up. It held for nearly three years across two presidencies. However, technical uncertainty about verifying treaty compliance, domestic pressures to resume testing, and the desire to best the other side in the court of public opinion all dogged the test ban talks. The moratorium collapsed when Moscow resumed testing in September 1961. This case began as a success before ending in failure.
  • The 1964–1966 US-Soviet agreement on NATO nuclear sharing and the Non-Proliferation Treaty. When Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency on November 22, 1963, reducing the risk of nuclear war was his highest foreign policy ambition. To that end, he sought to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear proliferation. However, the ongoing US effort to stand up a nuclear-armed NATO Multi-Lateral Force was anathema to the Soviet Union, which feared any step that would bring West Germany closer to the bomb. Between 1964 and 1966, the US and USSR worked out a bilateral agreement on NATO nuclear sharing that preserved the status quo in Europe and denied West Germany independent nuclear capability. This was the critical but often overlooked great power agreement that opened the door to what ultimately became the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty. This case was a success.

All three cases are intentionally drawn from the first decades of the Cold War—before US-Soviet bilateral arms control was routinized and when policy-makers on both sides learned to cooperate through experimentation. They were chosen, in part, out of a belief that studying how the pioneers of great power nuclear cooperation learned by doing may help contemporary policy-makers do better themselves.

Findings and recommendations in brief

Core findings

The central finding of this study is that risk-reducing great power nuclear cooperation is more likely to develop and endure when relative material gains are not perceived as relevant, policy-makers’ time horizons are long, and cheating is difficult to conceal.

This statement captures three factors at the operational-level of diplomacy that policy-makers can influence and that have direct bearing on whether great power nuclear cooperation succeeds or fails. Those drivers of success and failure are as follows:

  • Relative advantage—whether policy-makers perceive that cooperation would leave either great power better or worse off with respect to each other.
  • Time horizons—whether policy-makers are willing to forgo easy short-term benefits to cooperatively pursue an objective or mitigate a threat that lies years or decades in the future.
  • Cheating—whether the details of a cooperation arrangement are such that the potential costs and risks of being caught are perceived to outweigh the benefits to either side of cheating.

Core recommendations

Based on these findings, we recommend the following to US policy-makers seeking to manage nuclear risk through cooperation with adversaries:

  • Identify areas in which neither side (the US nor its rival(s)) would gain disproportionate benefits from cooperation. Non-proliferation and nuclear safety and security agreements are good historical examples.
  • Forgo short-term advantages during the pursuit of long-term agreements to cooperatively manage nuclear risks—and encourage others to do the same. For example, the opportunity to poison negotiations and publicly pin blame for failure on an opponent has often been tempting enough to derail nascent attempts at cooperation. Such temptations should be avoided.
  • Tailor agreements and any corresponding verification regimes so that they are invasive enough to detect cheating in a timely fashion but not so invasive that they become intelligence collection activities that generate relative advantage.

Additional recommendations

This project also draws on the history presented below, as well as international relations theory (see appendix) to offer two additional sets of recommendations—one at the strategic level and the other focused on tactical-level diplomacy—that bookend these core recommendations.

When approaching the overall topic of cooperative strategies for nuclear risk management at the strategic level, senior officials should keep the following four principles in mind. Although they do not prescribe specific actions, returning periodically to these principles can help policy-makers evaluate options and frame decisions as they survey the landscape of nuclear cooperation challenges and opportunities:

  • Cooperation is sometimes the answer.
  • Cooperation usually produces modest results by preserving the status quo balance of advantage.
  • Failure is an option.
  • The scope of what is possible can change over time.

Similarly, as they pursue cooperation with a rival to manage a specific nuclear risk, the following diplomatic tactics may help policy-makers improve their odds of achieving a meaningful and enduring agreement:

  • Emphasize common threats.
  • Frame the issue as a long-term problem.
  • Avoid negotiating in public.
  • Keep the number of countries involved small.
  • De-link areas of possible cooperation from other issues.
  • Understand how scientific uncertainty or evolving science can shape negotiations.
  • Define key terms to clarify positions and limit misunderstandings.

Although near-term prospects for US cooperation with either Russia or China—let alone both—in the nuclear field appear very dim, there is no reason to assume that this will remain true forever.

Against this background, this report provides concrete recommendations for US officials looking to identify and seize opportunities for security-enhancing nuclear cooperation. It aims to ensure that the US government is prepared to employ the full range of potential strategies—cooperative as well as competitive—to secure and advance US national interests.

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  • Pages: 78
  • Document Number: IRM-2023-U-034966-Final
  • Publication Date: 3/1/2023
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