Both the deterrence principle that prevented major conventional wars and nuclear annihilation and the detente policy that helped bring about the end of the Cold War have ceased to decisively influence the course of history. Yet no viable alternatives are in sight.
Fear and reason underpinned the deterrence system based on mutual assured destruction in the second half of the 20th century. Rationality and predictability drove the thinking and action of the Soviet Union and the United States of America, the two nuclear superpowers. The 1970 worldwide Non-Proliferation Treaty was designed to prevent the emergence of further nuclear powers. 191 countries joined it and only a few countries such as India, Israel and Pakistan, which had and have nuclear weapons, refrained.
The bipolar system continued for a few years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in 1991, but it soon began to show cracks as new power centers were created and mutual trust between the two nuclear superpowers dwindled. A new multipolar world order was created based on the US, Russia, China and Europe, with regional powers such as Brazil, India, Japan and Iran gaining influence.
After North Korea successfully tested intercontinental missiles potentially capable of carrying nuclear warheads in late 2017, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un began to threaten the US with nuclear weapons. When the US President responded by threatening to completely destroy North Korea, the need for a new system covering the nuclear powers was abundantly clear. For China, Russia and the US the main objective will be to bring North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons potential into a binding arms control regime. Rapid resumption of six-power negotiations (US, Russia, China, Japan, North and South Korea) would in practice be tantamount to recognising North Korea as a nuclear power – an unpalatable but unavoidable step in view of the current situation. And, after all, the recent start of talks between North and South Korea and the reactivation of the communication channel between the two governments are hopeful signs.
The world’s security architecture has been upended, but the danger of a nuclear confrontation can still be held in check politically. Unanimous condemnation of North Korea by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council is a promising sign; and heightened awareness of the growing danger of nuclear warfare could usher in a new era, in which the nuclear powers would rein in their own geostrategic ambitions (Russia/China) and politically signal predictability (US). But the time has also come for the powers to think beyond deterrence and develop new ways of building mutual confidence and cooperation that are geared to the contemporary world. The goal today is not just to contain the danger of nuclear war but also to develop a response to existing and emerging asymmetric dangers such as terrorism, cyberwar and hybrid warfare. The recognition that the existing world order is a thing of the past and that we are moving into a new order in which we will need to draw up new rules governing international stability, balanced interests, confidence building and predictability, should be reason enough to come to an agreement.
Recent history teaches us that to keep the peace, we must work together.
Hartmut Bühl, Editor-in-chief