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Can the International Law resolve Egypt Nile River Crisis?

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International Law plays an important role in resolving conflicts among states in the international arena. The conflict between the Nile Basin countries is a struggle over the legality of the Nile water, according to the agreements signed during the colonial era. The Nile Basin crisis is considered an international water law conflict in the regional system which arose recently. Egypt is one of the oldest civilizations on the earth, before the emergence of international law and even the international water law (international watercourse), the ancient Egyptians knew the value of the water of the Nile River because their life depends on agriculture.

This paper aims to highlight the importance of the Nile River to Egypt, and the role of the international law in dealing with the Nile’s crisis.

Egypt and the Nile River

The Nile River is one of the most important and the longest rivers in Africa and the world. The Nile River is located in northeast Africa, it flows through many different African states including Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, etc. According to the British Encyclopedia, Nile River stretches 6.695 kilometers, measured from its extreme sources in the plateau of the tropical lakes ( at the farthest point on the Luvironza River, a branch of the Rurubu River in Burundi) to the last point in its estuary in the Mediterranean Sea. Besides, it’s the second largest basin in the African continent in terms of area, it comes after the Congo River Basin, which has an area of approximately 3.82 million square km. After the independence of South Sudan, the Nile River waters are shared by eleven riparian countries in Africa: Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo(DRC), Eritrea, and Kenya.

The Nile River has two major tributaries, the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The White Nile begins from Lake No at the point where Bahar al Jabal(river) ends and extends to Khartoum. Thus, the River between Lake No and the meeting point of Sobat River heads from west to east, joining the river at this distance Bahr el Zaraf. The White River in Ethiopia supplies about 14 percent of the Nile’s River water. The second major tributaries of the Nile River is the Blue Nile which begins at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, it’s 1,840 meters above sea level and an area of about 3,060 square kilometers. The Blue River is undoubtedly the most significant tributary of the Nile River, about one-tenth of the African continent covered by the Blue Nile, and its riparian countries possessing 40 %of Africa’s continent population.

As I mentioned above, the Nile River is of great importance to any country in the world including Egypt. When we mention the Nile River we have to mention the ancient Egyptian civilization, the Nile River has played an important role in shaping the life of ancient Egypt. it’s known that the ancient Egyptian civilization developed along the banks of the Nile River. The ancient Egyptians depended upon the Nile River for agriculture and irrigation, so there is no doubt that the Nile River occupies a central place in the lives of Egypt and the Egyptians. The Nile River was worshiped as a God in ancient Egypt, and the ancient Egyptians glorified the Nile.

The importance of the Nile River to Egyptians is that it represents Egypt’s main source of freshwater. Egypt depends entirely on the Nile River for agricultural, industrial and domestic uses. It provides over 96 percent of Egypt’s annual water needs. Besides, the Nile River has taken full control of Egypt’s economics and life. Although Egypt is the first beneficiary of the Nile’s water, there is no source of the Nile River in Egypt and Egypt is one of the downstream countries. Therefore, any shortage in the quantity of water supplied to Egypt has a direct and negative impact on its agricultural and industrial production.

The reason for Nile waters dispute

The struggle over the Nile River waters dated from the colonial era. The reason for the dispute during the post-independence period and until the negotiation process was the rejection by some states of the treaties that signed during the colonial era, such as Ethiopia. But after reaching the principle of an agreement to establish a framework for cooperation, there were some disputes regarding the sharing of the Nile’s waters, and the rule of prior notification or consultation. There were several treaties signed during the colonial era that addressed water allocation in the Nile River that still affects the contemporary negotiations among the Nile Basin countries. Under colonial Britain’s rule, in an effort to secure their interests over the Nile River in Egypt, some treaties stood out; the 1891 agreement, 1929 agreement, and the 1959 agreement.

In 1891, Britain and Italy signed an agreement determining their area of influence in the basin countries in eastern Africa to the outskirts of the Red Sea. Whereas, the third clause in the agreement stipulates that Italy will not construct any works on the Atbara River in order not to impede its flow to the Nile. The fourth article in this treaty focused on protecting the interest of British and Italian nationals in East Africa and supervising the Red Sea corridors more than in the issue of regulating the exploitation of the Nile waters.

On May 15, 1902, a treaty was signed in Addis Ababa between Britain (on behalf of Sudan) and the Ethiopian Empire to demarcate and define the border between Ethiopia and Sudan. In the third clause of the treaty, Emperor Menelik II pledged not to make any attempt to built such a structure on the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, or Sobat River. In order to ensure the continuity of this treaty, it was stipulated that agreement must be adhered to by both parties and their heirs and those who succeed them to the throne. In this agreement, it explicitly provided for the regulations of the exploitation of the waters of the Blue Nile, Lake Tana and the Sobat River, and the need for prior notification before starting any construction projects by Ethiopia.

During the Egyptian-British bilateral rule of Sudan, Egypt and Britain signed an agreement in 1929. The agreement focused on using the Nile water for irrigation, whereas, in the agreement, Egypt requested to abide by its complete freedom regarding the negotiations that precede the conclusion of an agreement on Sudan. Besides, the agreement also stipulated that Sudan would not build any dam on the Nile and its branches or on the lakes from which the Nile originates, whether in Sudan or the countries under the British colonial rule. Britain agreed to Egypt’s requirements and confirmed the recognition of Egypt’s natural and historical rights to the use of the Nile River waters.

After Egypt gained its independence and with the growth of the population and the increase of the development projects, Egypt wanted to store water for use in agriculture, irrigation and electricity generation, so Egypt started building the High Dam in Aswan, and also Sudan started building projects. The importance of the Nile River between the two countries increased, as a result, the two countries signed an agreement in 1959. The agreement stipulated that Sudan’s yearly water allotment would rise from the 4 billion cubic meters to 18.5 billion cubic meters. The 1959 agreement also recognized the rights of other Nile Basin countries to the Nile waters. According to the agreement, whether any of the Nile Basin countries want to claim their rights, then Egypt and Sudan will negotiate and reach a unified solution. In 1993, Egypt and Ethiopia signed an agreement, and Ethiopia agreed through a framework with Egypt that Ethiopia would not build any structure that may harm Egypt’s interests over the Nile River and impedes the entry of the Nile waters to Egypt, but the agreement was not bound by international law. We can see that the1929 agreement and 1959 agreement affirmed Egypt’s water  rights for the Nile River.

The tension between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile’s water arose in the middle of the twentieth century, particularly, when Ethiopia had announced the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project(GERD) in 2011 on the Blue Nile tributary which started in Ethiopia. The goal of the construction of the Renaissance Dam is creating one of the world’s biggest hydroelectric power plants. However, the construction of the Dam has caused a row between Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt is upset because the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project will directly and negatively affect Egypt’s interests in the Nile River.

The role of  the International Law

Before examining Egypt’s legal rights on the Nile River, its very important to turn first to the international law. Until the early years of the twentieth century, there were no rules to determine how to use the international river waters among the countries. The relations between countries related to the use of the international river water began to complicate and the conflict among states seemed over how to use the water of the river. So, international law defined some rules and theories in order to regulate the relations among states and the use of  the  shared  waters  between  them.

The theory of Absolute Integrity; this theory does not allow river states to use river water in a way that harms the rights of other river states. Every country whose international river runs in its region has the full right to keep the flow of Nile water in its region without reducing the percentage of water that reaches it. The political borders do not separate the river from its source to its mouth. So, when any country wants to build any structure on the river or its branches, it must first inform the countries that share the same river it with. The theory of Common Natural Resources; this theory was founded on the principle of good neighborliness and aims to the equitable utilization of international river waters between the riparian countries. According to the above theories, Egypt will offer several justifications under international law to support its claim and protect its right in the Nile River. Egypt will argue that the agreement between Britain and Ethiopian Empire which signed in 1902 confirmed that Ethiopia agrees to not take any measure that would harm Egypt’s interests on the Nile River. The treaty also precludes Ethiopia from building any projects that will affect Egypt. Egypt also has argued that 1929 and 1959 agreements between Egypt and Sudan, the agreements imposed a duty on Nile River Basin countries to take measures to prevent causing harm to other states sharing the Nile waters. Its worth mentioning that Egypt has already started diplomatic negotiations to resolve the dispute with Ethiopia, and the last of these negotiations were held in Washington.

Conclusion

The purpose of the international law is to fix the problems and disputes that might arise among states. Nile River crisis is a major dilemma among the Nile Basin countries in the African continent. Egypt is one of the oldest civilizations that developed along the Nile River banks relies on the Nile waters for agriculture, irrigation and industry and so on. Thus, Egypt would justifications under international law (international watercourse) to secure its right over the Nile River.

Amira Ahmed, Ph.D. fellow, School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University, China. Master in Diplomacy.

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International Law

How nations states are limited

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After the World War II, the establishment of the United Nations and the beginning of cooperation between the states was considered by many governments as a positive step. It was a useful step for all governments to start cooperating with European states that had been at war with each other for many years and failed in European history, and for other states to join this process and maintain positive political and diplomatic relations. However, after the recent two world wars, the desire of states to sit at the table of peace has made them forget something. These were the influences of the global government (UN) that would affect the sovereignty of states. Therefore, as liberal relations and the process of globalization develop in international relations, nation-states have begun to move away from the status of individual states to the management of global power. Today, global governance has become a reality. When national states decide on an act in international politics, they are forced to act and implement acts not only in the national interests of the state, but also in the opinion of international organizations. Today, it is not as easy as in the past to seriously change the geopolitical situation and violate international law without the opinion of international political organizations. Because today in the system of international relations there is a control and power through global governance, which will influence the sovereign decisions of states. Therefore, today I will share my views on how global governance, which is a reality today, has brought nation-states closer to decline.

Part 1

Although the emergence and functioning of international organizations dates back to the 19th century, the formation of global governance is largely thought of as the history of the United Nations and some of the political organizations that have emerged since then. As I said, the emergence of global governance is associated with the end of World War II in 1945 and the establishment of the United Nations. As we know, after the Second World War, the world began to move on different realities. With the establishment of the United Nations, a mechanism of global governance has already begun to emerge. However, due to the geopolitical consequences of World War II and the transfer of Eastern Europe to the USSR, global governance through the UN could not cover the whole world, but simply led to the emergence of international organizations with its roots and the division of the world into two poles. As we know, the signing of the North Atlantic Pact in 1949, the emergence of NATO and the formation of the Western bloc, and later the signing of the Warsaw Pact and the establishment of the Eastern bloc in the same year divided the world into two poles. On the one hand, there was the capitalist West in global governance. On the other hand, there was the communist-ruled USSR. This continued until the 1990s.

Then, in 1991, with the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, global governance began to take over the world and the world came to global power, and liberal relations began to take over the world. Even Fukuyama, when he said the end of history, in fact meant that global governance would cover the world and that the world’s states would operate in the process of globalization based on a liberal tradition. All of this was a small history of how global governance came into being and when it covered the whole world. After the end of the Cold War in 1991, the Eastern European states that had already seceded from the USSR began to integrate into the West. In short, they have joined global governance. Later, some countries in the region, such as Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine, which gained independence from the USSR, entered the global system of governance, maintaining ties with the West. However, states such as Russia and Iran, in order to further protect their sovereignty, did not allow the influence of this administration to influence them and began to sever ties with the West over time.

However, the process of globalization did not move much with its positive aspects. Not only did global governance influence the decisions of states to control them, but it also had to create hierarchical control over them by creating global hegemony. The ideal option for this was the hegemonic equator. In this hegemonic equator, states are legally and formally equal, but over time they have become economically, politically and militarily unequal. Thus, after a while, this unequal situation began to form a hierarchy of power between states. States with weaker economic resources and militaries are already under constant pressure from powerful states and under the influence of powerful states.

For example, we can see an example of this in our country today. We are all equal in the South Caucasus region. Although Georgia, Iran, Russia and Azerbaijan are formally equal, there is a hierarchy in terms of global hegemony. For example, Russia comes first in this hierarchy. Because Russia is much luckier than others in military, economic and geopolitical terms. The second is Iran. Because the possibility of Iran becoming a nuclear weapon results in its military superiority over other countries in the region. The third is Azerbaijan. Because Azerbaijan’s oil economy, such as oil and gas, makes it more economically viable and stronger than Armenia. Therefore, such differences created by global governance and the limits imposed on sovereign decisions by states have formed a critique of globalization over time, leading to criticism and debate by various academics. This criticism has long focused on the question of whether globalization can lead to the decline of nation-states.

Part 2

As we know, the long-term impact of the globalization process on states has led to serious criticism about whether globalization has transformed states. While some academics believe that global governance destroys and degrades nation-states, others argue that globalization serves the national interests of nations.

The first critical approach is that the process of globalization is very powerful in a globalized world. In this case, we have already moved to a system of non-sovereign states. Today, states are no longer able to make independent political decisions in the long run for their national interests and to act accordingly. This process also weakens the power of states in the world and in international relations, and transnational companies gain a dominant position.

However, in the second critical approach, academics think differently and contradict the first criticism. Academics believe that although globalization affects the independent acts of states, the superpowers of their regions are still the most important entities in global politics. Because both international organizations and economic transnational organizations, which are the concepts of the globalization process, were created by these countries themselves. Therefore, globalization does not harm these countries, but serves their national interests. They can violate international law and the rules of global governance at any time, and even the geopolitical situation can change despite global governance. (For example, the US invasion of Iraq, Russia’s imperialist act against Georgia and Ukraine)

In addition, there is a third and final critical approach, which is the approach of global governance to other forms of power, interests, goals and acts of states. As globalization is now considered a world reality, states are forced to choose between two options. Either Iran, like North Korea, will remain closed and protect its national sovereignty outside of global governance, or, like other countries in the world, will join the process of globalization and cooperate with each other. Since there is an economic reality created by global governance in the world, global governance can keep states under its influence by changing the interests, goals and acts of states.

However, the decline of the state today is not only due to the process of globalization and global governance. In addition, there are institutions such as the global economy, business, large companies, non-governmental organizations and international organizations, which pose a serious threat to the sovereignty of states. Today we live in a world of more international, economic companies and organizations than national states. 49% of these companies and organizations belong to the states and 51% to the international economy. The economic power of some of these companies (Exxon Mobil, General Motors) is already greater than in many Eastern European and African countries. From this we can conclude that the second concept that leads to the decline of nation-states, along with international organizations, is the international economic companies.

Conclusion

As a result, I can say that today the globalized world and international organizations have become a system that borders states and limits their national decisions. If in the 20th century it was so easy to make a decision to start a world war, to use any type of weapon, it has become almost impossible to do so in a globalized world. But in addition, globalization and international organizations can sometimes help strengthen states. For example, today, because states play an important role in international organizations, decisions made through international organizations

sometimes depend on states. For example, the UN Security Council, the Consulate General of the European Union, is a process that depends on states in the decision-making process. The decisions of the member states are considered very serious and decisive in the decision-making process. In this case, too, we can see that international organizations do not act as a tool for the decline of nation-states, but as a concept that strengthens them. Therefore, I do not think it is right to assess globalization today as a system that leads to the decline of nation-states.

Reference

  • Andrew Heywood. (2013, fourth edition). Politics s.18
  • Robert Jackson & Georg Sorensen: Introduction to İR, s. 4
  • Mazarr, M. (1999). Global trends 2005: An owner’s manual for the next decade. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Zygmunt BAUMAN, Küreselleşme-Toplumsal Sonuçları, Çev: Abdullah Yılmaz, Arıntı Yayınları, İstanbul, 2010, s.83

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International Law

Do dominant strengths lead to heavy commitments?

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In the middle of a global recession, in which almost all facets of our lives are now carried out on-line, technology firms are experiencing a massive increase in their customer base. These businesses are over-influenced by the necessities and the popularity of internet content and networks in our lives. It is through this force that our civil rights are upheld.

Transparency International has reported that the 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) has revealed that chronic corruption threatens health care services and leads to the pandemic’s democracy. OnThursday Transparency International updated its annual survey, revealing that in 2020 the situation in Pakistan had deteriorated. Countries with strong results in the index are more spending on health care and more able to have basic health security and less likely to contravene political laws and institutions or rule of law. By their view of public corruption, the 2020 version of CPI rated 180 countries and territories based on 13 expert reviews and business executive surveys. The index was illuminated this year by Denmark and New Zealand, both with 88 points. At the bottom of the table, there are 14, 12, and 12 points respectively in Syria, Somalia, and South Sudan. Pakistan was 120 last year. The country’s corruption scale is 31 one point below the 32-last year at the scale of 0-100, where zero is ‘Extremely Corrupt’ and 100 is ‘Very Clean,’ suggesting a steadily deteriorating view of corruption in the public sector.

The annual CPI in 2020 shows that persistent corruption threatens healthcare services and leads to the political retreat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is a report on transparency exactly?

A transparency report is a frequently released document that analyzes the activities of entities that have a particular impact on the privacy or freedom of expression, information about the enforcement of internal rules such as community policies and service requirements, and provides statistics on original government and third-party user data demands, materials, and account limitations. The compliance report should include public and private third-party requests, company implementation information and recommendations for the Group, and the amount of customer information and content notifications and orders regulating or blocking content. Published every year, at least, and convenient for all users to use.

This involves ensuring, at a minimum, that records are regularly easy to access:

1) are consistent on the website of the organization

 2) intuitive user interface is used

3) people with disabilities are formatted

 4) glossaries or definitions of words in appropriate languages, where possible.

While the frequency of disclosure data is not standardized, we find more regularly published information more valuable. Especially as the pandemic will change our culture in the next few months, regular monitoring will provide a vital snapshot of how businesses respond.

Take TikTok’s illustration. As last year’s Chinese Social Media app broke into the western market, many people asked whether the Chinese government would track users. TikTok eventually published its first accountability report last January in response to rising pressure from champions of human rights. Although the study asked several concerns, it indicates the increasing value of reporting accountability to encourage trust in enterprises.

Who should post the transparency reports?

Everybody is the short answer. To date, in our Disclosure Monitoring index, we have gathered data from 70 companies worldwide. There are social media sites, gig enterprises, VPN services, telco firms, and everything between. A transparency report should be released by any firm managing consumer data. While transparency reports are only applicable for ICT firms, companies such as auto manufacturers, healthcare equipment manufacturers and even hotels manage consumer data as well as for conventional “technically” companies. Therefore, disclosure reports will need to be released. In North American companies we have had more reporting than in any other region. However, the field of openness should not be limited. In reality, South Korean and Japanese are new studies. Users around the world have the right to know what corporations are doing to preserve their performance. Home law may limit the amount that corporations may print in some countries, but this is not a reason for companies to refrain from reporting fully. Users must understand how government oversight can be limited.

From here, where are we going?

The rising need for technology solutions provides businesses with a rare opportunity to enhance their processes in transparency. We urge businesses that have published the disclosure reports over the years to follow the periodic, reliable reporting practice and to find means of providing their customers with more transparency in these unpredictable times. The time has come to demonstrate your respect for human rights to the companies new to this practice, particularly videoconferencing and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services. Especially as the pandemic will change our culture in the next few months, regular monitoring will provide a vital snapshot of how businesses respond.

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International Law

Surviving in a Deregulated Strategic World

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Russian-American strategic relations are entering uncharted waters with the demise of the arms control regime; rapid technological revolution; the rise of nuclear multipolarity; the asymmetry of the two countries’ positions amid their growing confrontation and an increasing likelihood of military conflict among major powers; and the complete lack of trust and a glaring deficit of decency in relations between Moscow and Washington. Preventing a nuclear war between the two powers will be as hard a task as it ever was, and the environment for that immensely more complex and fluid than ever.

Deterrence as the only pillar of stability

Russia’s nuclear doctrine, like the U.S. one, is based on the strategy of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear deterrence, in turn, is rooted in the concept of mutually assured destruction. To make deterrence credible, one has to have a realistic capability of absorbing the enemy’s first massive nuclear attack, and still of destroying him as a functioning entity in the second strike. This is assured by launching one’s missiles once a certified warning is received that the enemy has launched a massive attack. Thus, the party that fired first would assuredly die second. Knowing that, neither party would initiate an attack, and peace would be preserved. As the U.S. and Soviet presidents agreed in a 1990 joint statement, “Nuclear war cannot be won, and should not be fought”.

A credible strategy of deterrence needs to deal with a range of challenges.

Ballistic missile defenses, offering a promise of intercepting a certain proportion of incoming missiles, by definition, undermine deterrence. For three decades, ballistic missile defenses (BMD) were constrained by the ABM Treaty, which Moscow considered to be a cornerstone of strategic stability. After the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty in 2002, Russia embarked on a program designed to nullify any advantages the United States would get through implementing its missile defense programs. Thus, the BMD challenge to deterrence was – and still is being – met by improving the capacity of one’s missile fleet to penetrate enemy defenses and deliver their payloads to targets.

At this moment, the Russian leadership feels assured that its strategic arsenal will be capable of overwhelming any missile defenses the United States would be able to deploy for several more decades.

The enemy’s decapitating strikes from close range, whether from advantageous geographical positions or outer space, carry the risk of eliminating one’s national command and control centers before they can issue orders to activate a nuclear response. To meet this challenge, command and control centers are hardened to withstand any conceivable attack. Other potential counter-measures, both laden with heightened risk, include placing the adversary in a similarly vulnerable geographical position by moving one’s attack assets within close range of his key centers and bases, or by adopting a first strike deterrence posture which sends the message to the adversary that, in a crisis, one would have to launch a nuclear attack first, in order not to be annihilated by the enemy. As President Vladimir Putin put it in an interview with a U.S. TV station, “We don’t need as world without Russia”.

Other technological challenges include the use of artificial intelligence and particularly of cyberattacks to paralyze nuclear command and control systems. The importance of cyber defenses has risen sharply in the last decades. Efforts are being made to make sure that nuclear communications remain immune from cyber penetration.

Political challenges look more serious. A massive nuclear attack which was the basis of strategic thinking in the second half of the 20th century is growing less and less likely. This undermines the stabilizing function of nuclear deterrence because the threat it once sought to prevent is moving. Indeed, Russia itself, in the hour of its military weakness and domestic political disarray in the 1990s announced that it would use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional attack if such an attack would put the existence of the Russian state in jeopardy.

Prior to that, Russia rejected the idea of limited nuclear war and did not engage in thinking too much about the ladder of nuclear escalation. Under conditions of the mid-to-late 20th century, such a war would have been likely fought in Europe, including the European portion of the Soviet Union, and would spare the United States. Moscow was never going to give Washington such an advantage and said that, once the nuclear Pandora’s box was opened, limiting war would be impossible. This was certainly part of the deterrence strategy.

Now, with the specter of a nuclear holocaust receding very far, and the confrontation between the United States and Russia rising to the point when their military platforms or units can actually collide in various parts of the world; and when the United States and Russia are involved in armed conflicts on different sides and are operating in close proximity to each other, like in Syria; when frozen conflicts can unfreeze and escalate (think Donbas), preventing war between Russia and America has become perhaps the only real issue on the otherwise de fact barren U.S.-Russian agenda. It is thus vitally important to understand what Moscow and Washington are up to.

In the nuclear area, both Russians and Americans are concerned that their adversary will use nuclear weapons first at the tactical level, to seal one’s conventional success and make the other side accept defeat. Underlying this is a belief (which appears to be a fateful illusion, more present among American scholars and experts) that war and achieving victory in it have again become possible, with the stakes much lower than during the Cold War, and the prospect of total annihilation itself is enough to deter the weaker party, Russia, from using its nuclear weapons on a massive scale. This is the principal danger these days.

Misperceptions – or lack of clear understanding – between the two exist not so much regarding their nuclear doctrines but with respect to their broader foreign policy strategies. Absolute lack of trust and high levels of mutual suspicion complicate strategic assessment.

Strategic stability in a multipolar nuclear environment

Strategic stability as defined in the decades of the Cold War was narrowly focused on relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. The countries with the largest nuclear arsenals and military establishments were also the two principal antagonists in the competition not so much for state primacy but for world ideological and socio-political hegemony. With the end of the Cold War, this is all over. Russia and the United States still possess the world’s largest by far nuclear weapons arsenals, but their relationship is no longer the main axis of world politics. The United States continues to be a superpower, but Russia is now a power of a different caliber with no ambition to prevail in the world.

America’s main challenger now is China, which has surpassed it in terms of GDP in PPP terms and is expected to surpass it in nominal USD terms soon. China is also challenging America’s technological primacy and offers a model of governance that has been able to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic much more effectively than the United States. Yet, China’s nuclear arsenal is small compared to American and has a very different structure. Unlike the Soviet Union in the 1970s, China has no desire to engage in arms control at this stage, believing (correctly) this to be to America’s unilateral advantage. Such a situation creates a mismatch: U.S.’s strategic relations are better developed with Russia, which is no longer America’s principal strategic rival, and are very thin with China, which is.

Besides the geopolitical downgrading of Russia which is not reflected in a comparable decrease in its nuclear capabilities, and the steep economic/technological rise of China, not accompanied on the same scale by the growth of its nuclear forces, there are other powers who have joined the nuclear weapons states club as independent players. The United Kingdom and France, which developed their weapons in the 1950s and 1960s, have always been U.S. allies within NATO, and their weapons were always considered by Moscow to be part of the Western bloc’s combined nuclear arsenal. Cold War-era nuclear bipolarity that coincided with a similar ideological and geopolitical division (China remained largely introverted during that period) transformed into multipolarity. Strategic stability ceased being an issue for Moscow and Washington exclusively to tackle.

When India and Pakistan both acquired nuclear weapons at the turn of the 21st century, this materially changed the previous situation. Delhi and Islamabad are in no need to coordinate their policies and strategies with others. Ever since independence and partition, the two countries have maintained tense relations, leading to full-scale wars and border conflicts. Armed with nuclear weapons and delivery means and sharing a long border, they now got the ability to start the world’s first nuclear war. What is also important to note here is the strategic asymmetry: while Pakistan trains its weapons on India, India sees China as its main strategic rival, and Pakistan, China’s friend, as an adversary. Maintaining strategic stability between India and Pakistan through arms control on the U.S.-Soviet model was impossible due to geographical proximity and territorial issues, the general power imbalance between the two countries, and the asymmetrical strategic position of India and Pakistan.

North Korea, which developed its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles in the 21st century, presented another problem. Its arrival as a nuclear-armed state sent the message that any country whose leadership was determined to go nuclear and was prepared to withstand serious international pressure was able to achieve its goal, provided it stayed the course. The North Korean regime learned one thing about nuclear deterrence: all you need to do to deter the world’s most powerful country from attacking you and toppling your regime is to make it unsure about wiping out completely your nuclear arsenal or intercepting every nuclear-tipped missile that you launch against it. Pyongyang’s example essentially demonstrates that any country anywhere can effectively deter any conceivable opponent with relatively crude weapons and missiles.

During the Cold War, strategic stability used to be essentially about high-yield nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. In the 21st century, strategic non-nuclear systems have achieved a degree of precision that allows them to do the job that in the earlier era could only be assigned to nuclear systems.

With the U.S.-Soviet confrontation no longer the only major military concern, the so-called tactical weapons – both nuclear and non-nuclear – have acquired salience. These are certainly the ones that are pointed in opposite directions on the Indian Sub-Continent; they also form the bulk of the Chinese nuclear arsenal and missile fleet. Assuring stability within that class of weapons is exceedingly more difficult than with strategic weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The United States and the Soviet Union never managed to control their tactical weapons – which, it was true, was less important then.

Guardrails and communications instead of treaties

Formal arms control treaties are becoming a thing of the past. Developing a new U.S.-Russian treaty to succeed New START will be extremely difficult, given the complexity of the issues involved, and the poisonous climate prevailing in the United States attitudes toward Russia. Negotiating agreements in a multipolar nuclear environment appears next to impossible. Even a trilateral U.S.-Russian-Chinese understanding – realistic in principle, given that they are currently the world’s top three military and geopolitical players by far – appears very long in coming.

Given this situation, strengthening strategic stability requires strengthening deterrence in the sense of eliminating all hopes of a victory in a nuclear war.

No new technological developments should be allowed to create an illusion of achieving victory in a war between nuclear powers. There should also be no illusion of a nuclear power defeating a nuclear opponent using only conventional means of warfare.

A military collision between the United States and Russia in the 21st century can be the result of incidents between military units or platforms – such as aircraft, ships – operating in close proximity to one another; local or regional conflicts escalating and drawing in Moscow and Washington on opposite sides; misperceptions about the actions of the other side, such as surprise exercises, and the like. In all these and similar cases, preventing military conflict between Russia and America requires the flawless operation of communications channels between the military and security authorities of the two countries. Such communication, on the model of the deconfliction mechanism that has been in place in Syria since 2015, would help clarify the situation, prevent escalation and avoid misperception or misunderstanding.

However, a complete lack of trust between the U.S. and Russian governments makes mutual suspicion irreducible. In a serious crisis, communication per se will not fully satisfy either party. Messages passed along communications channels can be perceived as disinformation. Much more value will be placed on one’s own intelligence assets, from the national technical means of reconnaissance and intelligence gathering to human sources. Interpretation of that information will be of crucial, even vital importance. Technical or human error and political and other considerations leading to misrepresentation can lead to disaster.

There can be various confidence-building measures. Under the START I Treaty, Moscow and Washington agreed to establish Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers. Such centers were ready to become operational in the early 2000s. However, the project fell through due to technical problems. A variation of that idea could be useful under the present circumstances of new hostility between the two countries. Yet, before this happens, a modicum of decency needs to be restored in the U.S.-Russian relations. Decency will not bring trust, but it can instill an element of mutual respect and self-respect to the relationship which is painfully lacking now. Without this, the only basis for strategic stability between Russia and the United States will remain fear of nuclear war.

Mutual fear may be as good a deterrent as any. It worked, after all, during the Cold War. The problem is that, in a relationship as highly asymmetrical as the present U.S.-Russian one, the two countries can stumble into a nuclear first use, and then a nuclear exchange, through the thick fog of mutual misperceptions borne out of U.S. arrogance, Russian resentment, reciprocal hostility, and utter disrespect.

Avoiding collision in uncharted waters

Even if New START is extended, the United States and Russia will have bought only a short reprieve. Five years – if this is the timeframe of the extension – will hardly be enough for negotiating a new treaty. So, extension or no extension, the 50-year-long era of arms control between Moscow and Washington is drawing to a close. From now on, deterrence will not only be the principal basis of strategic stability but its only basis.

True to its core philosophical assumptions, political goals, and doctrinal objectives, the United States will continue to strive for strategic superiority over Russia and China. For its part, Russia will seek to protect its nuclear deterrence capability vis-à-vis America. The nuclear arms race is already on. This is not a game of numbers of weapons but rather of their capabilities. President Putin, in his 2018 annual address to the Federal Assembly, laid out what measures had been taken by Russia in response to the 2002 U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. Further modernization efforts will continue on both sides.

Strategic decisions by either party that change force postures can lead to changes to the other party’s doctrines. The U.S. withdrawal in 2019 from the INF Treaty has opened the way to the development and deployment of a new generation of INF systems in both Asia and Europe. If such U.S. systems are deployed in Japan and South Korea, this would put China’s key centers of decision-making and strategic assets at high risk, as well as cover much of the Russian Far East and Siberia. Russia would certainly respond with its own deployments, modifying its force posture accordingly. If, by contrast, U.S. INF missiles are deployed to Europe (e.g., Poland) from where they can quickly reach Moscow and all targets in European Russia, this would place Russia in ultimate danger. There will certainly be changes to Russia’s own force posture. However, Russia might logically have to go farther and adopt a first-strike deterrence strategy in order to pre-empt a decapitating U.S. attack against itself. Having escaped nuclear war when U.S.-Soviet antagonism was absolute, the two countries might thus put the world’s existence at risk out of sheer contempt for each other.

This dangerous outcome needs to be prevented. Deconflicting and communications are vitally important, confidence building, such as the resurrection of nuclear risk reduction centers might help, but without a meaningful improvement in Russian-U.S. political relations to the level of serious dialogue on security issues between the two governments, the situation will continue to deteriorate. Right now, U.S.-Russia relations are clouded in a toxic fog, which makes avoiding kinetic collision between them much more difficult. It looks that the Biden Administration, while supporting New START extension and arms control in general, is going to take a hard line toward the Kremlin, aiming to squeeze Russia even more than its predecessor. Moscow is bracing for a new round of confrontation. Tough times are lying ahead.

From our partner RIAC

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