During the Cold War, an ever-increasing quantity of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles determined the strategic parameters of international security. In the 30 years since then, the global nuclear stockpiles have been reduced gradually. This process has, at least for the time being, come to an end with the New START treaty on deployed strategic nuclear weapons. It was signed by the US and Russia in April 2010. Despite its overall success, the prospects for further (nuclear) disarmament are bleak. Instead, we are witnessing an evolving arms race that will, however, differ significantly from the Cold War tradition. Two main issues drive this process.
The first is the rise of China. Since its inception in the 1960s, nuclear arms control has been a bilateral affair between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. Even today, both nuclear superpowers account for approximately 90% of existing warheads. Nevertheless, the US government has frequently called upon China – which, according to public sources, still possesses less than 300 warheads compared to the more than 6000 in the respective US and Russian arsenals – to join strategic nuclear arms control negotiations. Because Washington views Beijing as the main geopolitical competitor in the 21st century, it seeks to protect its technological and strategic edge by either constraining China or lifting formal limits on its own capabilities. The US withdrawal from the INF-treaty is a case in point. Russia’s treaty violations notwithstanding, the US primarily reacts to the growing Chinese arsenal of intermediate-range missiles and radar capabilities that potentially hold US military assets and allies in East Asia at risk. In August 2019, the US for the first time tested a ground-launched Tomahawk cruise missile, followed by a second test of a ground-launched intermediate-range ballistic missile in December that year.