Reviving arms control in Europe

26.08.2016 - Interview

Article by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on project-syndicate.org (26.08.2016)

European security, to the surprise of many, is under threat once again. So, once again, Europe’s security must top our political agenda.

Even before the Ukraine conflict began in 2014, there were growing signs of a brewing confrontation between rival blocs. This new confrontation, however, is no longer defined by antagonism between communism and capitalism, but by a dispute over social and political order – a dispute about freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights – as well as by a struggle for geopolitical spheres of influence.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea violated international law and called into question the very foundations of Europe’s security architecture. Moreover, the nature of conflict, as Ukraine has demonstrated, has changed dramatically. So-called hybrid warfare and non-state actors are playing an ever-greater role.

New technologies – offensive cyber capabilities, armed drones, robots, and electronic, laser, and standoff weapons – carry new dangers. New combat scenarios – smaller units, higher fighting power, faster deployment – are not covered by today’s existing arms-control regimes. The danger of a new arms race looms large.

Ever since the Harmel Report, which redefined NATO strategy back in 1967, the West has followed a two-track approach to its relations with Russia: deterrence and détente. NATO renewed its commitment to this dual strategy at its Warsaw Summit earlier this summer. We adopted the necessary measures to provide military reassurance, and at the same time reaffirmed our political responsibility for cooperative security in Europe.

However, there is a difficulty inherent in the dual approach:: deterrence is real and visible to everyone. Butdétente must also be real and visible if it is to play its part. Whenever this policy balance is lost, misperceptions arise, and little remains to counteract the risk of escalation.

To mitigate this risk, we should advance a concrete goal: the re-launch of arms control in Europe as a tried and tested means of risk-reduction, transparency, and confidence building between Russia and the West.

Arms-control agreements, history has demonstrated, are not the result of existing trust – they are a means to build trust where it has been lost. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear confrontation. Soon after the crisis – when the US-Soviet relationship was at an all-time low – both superpowers decided that it was time to work across the divide, through small and concrete steps. This principle was also at the heart of Willy Brandt’s Neue Ostpolitik in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today, new and deep rifts have opened up between Russia and the West, and I fear we will not be able to close them in the near future, however hard we try. No one should underestimate the challenges we face in this regard, especially given manifold crises – in eastern Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere – at a time when we are not immune from renewed escalation or further setbacks. Only one thing is certain: If we don’t try, peace in Europe and beyond will be tenuous. So we should heed the lesson of détente: however deep the rifts, we must try to build bridges.

Unfortunately, the existing arms-control and disarmament regimes are crumbling. Russia is no longer implementing the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which led to the removal of tens of thousands of tanks and heavy weapons from Europe in the years after 1990. Likewise, the transparency and confidence-building mechanisms enshrined in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s 2011 Vienna Document have grown increasingly ineffective, and Russia opposes the steps needed to modernize them.

The OSCE’s Treaty on Open Skies, too, is being limited in its application. And Russia’s annexation of Crimea has rendered obsolete the Budapest Memorandum. The trust that was carefully accumulated through decades of hard work has been squandered.

Yet, at the same time, Russia has repeatedly called for a new debate on conventional arms control in Europe. It’s high time to take Russia at its word!

Re-launching conventional arms should be based on one principle that was at the heart of Brandt’s Ostpolitik: Security in Europa must not be framed as a permanently adversarial process. Security is not a zero-sum game. Increased security for one side must not be perceived by the other side as reducing its own security. So, in my view, a re-launch of arms control must cover five areas. We need agreements that:

  • define regional ceilings, minimum distances and transparency measures (especially in militarily sensitive regions such as the Baltic);
  • take into account new military capabilities and strategies (smaller, mobile units, rather than traditional, large armies, taking resources such as transport capabilities into consideration accordingly);
  • integrate new weapons systems (for example, drones);
  • permit effective, rapidly deployable, flexible, and independent verification in times of crisis (carried out by, say, the OSCE);
  • can be applied where territorial status is disputed.

On these complex issues, we want to launch a structured dialogue with all those who share responsibility for European security. The OSCE, which Germany is chairing this year, is one important forum for such a dialogue.

It’s not certain that such an undertaking can succeed at a time when world order is eroding and relations with Russia are strained. But it would be irresponsible not to try.

True, Russia has violated basic principles of peace – territorial integrity, free choice of alliances, and recognition of international law – that are non-negotiable for us in the West. But we must likewise be united in seeking to avoid a spiral of antagonism and confrontation.

In the West, as in Russia, our world seems increasingly dangerous. Islamist terrorism, savage conflicts in the Middle East, failing states, and the refugee crisis imply risks for all Europe. Security capabilities on both sides are stretched to the limit. Nobody wins and everyone loses if we exhaust ourselves in a new arms race.

By re-launching arms control we can make a tangible offer of cooperation to all those who want to shoulder responsibility for Europe’s security. It is time to try the impossible.

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