Increasing nuclear stability is an urgent priority

Groundbreaking China–USA research collaboration on cyber stability

The product of a three-year joint research project between the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, a new report entitled China–U.S. Cyber-Nuclear C3 Stability examines the impact of cyber on nuclear stability and suggests a series of measures to mitigate the risks, noting:

Cyber attacks on nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) systems have become a potential source of conflict escalation among nuclear powers.

…compared to the mature experience and full-fledged mechanisms in nuclear deterrence, crisis management, and conflict escalation/de-escalation among the traditional nuclear powers, states not only lack a comprehensive and accurate perception of the threat posed by cyber operations but also lack consensus on crisis management and conflict de-escalation initiatives.

Before referring in more detail to the report, it is useful to first consider the meaning of “strategic stability”. In a much-needed update of the Cold War concept of strategic stability, the Carnegie Endowment, in a 2019 report, provided the following definition:

Strategic stability in the twenty-first century means the absence of incentives for any use of nuclear weapons, which effectively also requires preventing major military conflict among the nuclear weapon states.

Now turning to the new report, in the words of Thomas Carothers, Interim President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

Military and national security experts increasingly warn that the most likely cause of major warfare—conventional or nuclear—between the United States and China is a minor conflict that escalates sharply, even despite the desires and efforts by one or both countries to avert such a spiraling disaster.

Cyber operations, whether by China against the United States, or vice versa, are especially prone to provoking an escalation.

On a particularly innovative and constructive aspect of the report, Carothers writes that it:

aims to provide a robust open-source foundation for discussion of these issues in both China and the United States, overcoming the barriers of high classification and institutional compartmentation that frequently impede analysis and deliberation.

Reflecting on the institutional partnership behind the document, he further states:

The co-authorship of the paper by Chinese and U.S. teams also aims to overcome (at least partially) barriers of culture and language that render mutual understanding in this domain so difficult.

The report identifies the Cyber – NC3 challenges to strategic stability in a context of “conflicting threat perceptions” between the United States and China and the significant disparity in the two countries’ nuclear arsenals that combine to:

make it extremely difficult to produce and negotiate a common approach to strategic stability that each side can trust and verify.

Carothers concludes:

This entire paper and the preceding summary remarks point to the importance of sustained dialogue and information sharing.

The report identifies the vast range of cyber stability issues that should be the subject of much greater understandings between the US and China, a number of existing forums that could be utilized for such dialogues and potential agreements that might be reached. It concludes:

If initial bilateral dialogues prove beneficial and the broader political relationship between China and the United States improves, the two sides could design and agree upon measures to restrain themselves and each other from taking actions that would be most destabilizing in the cyber-nuclear nexus.

Paul Meyer, Chair of the Canadian Pugwash Group and author of many articles on cybersecurity policy, comments on a concerning lacuna in this otherwise pathbreaking report:

Conspicuous in its absence from the report is any reference to the work undertaken at the UN on international cyber security policy, including the authoritative 2015 GGE consensus report with its eleven “norms of responsible state behaviour”.

He continues:

This omission is despite the fact that both China and the US were party to the consensus agreement on the 2015 UN norms, which among others prohibited cyber targeting of critical infrastructure and the use of proxies by states in conducting “malicious cyber activity”.

This lapse aside, Professor Meyer concludes:

The current tense state of bilateral US-China relations may make take-up of the report’s recommendations by the two governments difficult, but if there is a hopeful sign in this dark and dangerous realm, it is that American and Chinese researchers could collaborate on a project of this complexity and sensitivity and bring it to a successful conclusion.

For more on the work of the UN Group of Governmental Experts referenced by Paul Meyer, see Norms of Responsible State Behaviour in Cyberspace (Paul Meyer, February 2020), in The Ethics of Cybersecurity, Chapter 18, pp. 347–360.

Diplomatic impasse over JCPOA reinstatement may reflect deeper issues

In yet another update on the fraught effort to reinstate the critically important Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), we turn first to a New York Times assessment of talks in Vienna, currently ongoing, aimed at reinvigorating the deal. Journalist Steven Erlanger writes:

Senior diplomats involved in the talks agreed on Friday that initial steps in two working groups designed to bring both the United States and Iran back into compliance with the accord were positive and would continue next week.

Although there are no direct talks between Iran and the United States, the other signatories to the deal — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, under the chairmanship of the European Union — are engaging in a kind of shuttle diplomacy between them.

That is the good news.

For an incisive look at the challenges — real or trumped-up — that still lie ahead in unblocking the deal, see the April 6 Inside Story segment entitled Can the US and Iran agree on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal?

Moderated by Mohammed Jamjoom, it features:

  • Hillary Mann Leverett – former US diplomat and co-author of Going to Tehran;
  • Hamed Mousavi – professor of political science at the University of Tehran (who got his PhD from Canada’s Carleton University); and
  • Tariq Rauf – former head of the Verification and Security Policy Coordination Office at the International Atomic Energy Agency (and a Canadian).

Most troubling is the analysis by Hillary Mann Leverett, who argues that the real issue blocking progress is a deep policy divide within the Biden administration for and against reinstating the deal.

To see the full programme, click on the arrow below.

New Nanos poll finds Canadians want nuclear disarmament

This week’s blog features a further offering from the eloquent, prolific, and indefatigable campaigner for nuclear disarmament former Ambassador Douglas Roche, O.C. Writing in the Hill Times, he describes the key findings of a new Nanos poll on Canadian attitudes to nuclear disarmament (we want it) and how the government should respond. He writes:

It is not surprising that 80 percent of Canadians think that … these weapons, now numbering more than 13,000 in the world, should be eliminated. What is notable is that three-quarters of Canadians want Parliament to debate the issue and have committee hearings.

He also highlights another very interesting finding:

Seven in ten agree that they would withdraw money from any investment or financial institution if they learned it was investing funds in anything related to the development, manufacturing or deployment of nuclear weapons.

Most important of all, Doug Roche makes a compelling case for Canada to respond to this clarion call to shed our reliance on nuclear weapons by pledging to attend the upcoming meeting of States parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). He writes:

The new poll may give the government the conviction to follow through on what it is now considering: attending as an observer the first meeting of the States parties to the Treaty, which will be convened by the U.N. Secretary-General in early 2022.

Asserting that Canada “will seriously consider the invitation”, Roche writes:

The president-designate of that meeting, Ambassador Alexander Kmentt of Austria, says that Canada, by so doing, could signal that nuclear weapons are not “a sustainable security policy in the long run.”

Ambassador Kmentt goes on to say in respect of non-nuclear weapons states like Canada, with a “nuclear reliant” policy through NATO:

reducing their reliance on and moving away from nuclear deterrence and replacing it with other forms of deterrence could be formulated as a clear policy goal and an urgent priority.

For the full article in pdf format click here:

Whither Canada?

We call on the Government of Canada to forthwith publicly pledge its attendance as an Observer at the first meeting of the States parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

Photo credit: Government of Canada (CSE)



Tags: 2015 UN Group of Governmental Experts on norms of responsible state behaviour, 2019 Caregie report on Strategic Stability in a Changing World, 2022 Meeting of TPNW States parties, Aljazeera Inside Story, Ambassador Alexander Kmentt of Austria, Ambassador Douglas Roche O.C., Canadian Pugwash Group Chair Paul Meyer, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, China-U.S. Cyber-Nuclear C3 Stability, conflict de-escalation, Hamed Mousavi, Hillary Mann Leverett, Iran nuclear deal, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Nanos 2021 poll on nuclear disarmament, Shanghai Institute for International Studies, Tariq Rauf, Thomas Carothers