Nuclear Risk Reduction: In Search of A Common Denominator

Sylvia Mishra

By Sylvia MishraAlexa Wehsener on December 1, 2022

As global nuclear dangers rise, risk reduction efforts through effective crisis communications are more important than ever. Yet differences in constituencies, priorities, and strategic cultures of nuclear weapons states generate disagreement as to which measures genuinely reduce risk. 

On November 16, 2022, IST’s webinar Averting Catastrophe: Walking the Talk on Nuclear Risk Reduction and Crisis Communication showcased the degree to which the American nuclear crisis communications playbook draws on its Cold War relationship with the Soviet Union, and how misaligned that playbook is with the contemporary relationship with Beijing. Discussion between Dr. Tong Zhao, Dr. Todd Sechser, Dmitry Stefanovich, and Leah Walker demonstrated the divergent perceptions of risk and the nature of risk reduction among modern nuclear weapons states. Dr. Zhao noted that, to Beijing, risk is a key element of nuclear deterrence: “When a nuclear weapon state feels its national interests are threatened, then it will have less incentives to reduce risks.” In other words, some nations may eschew risk reduction for fear of weakening their nuclear deterrent. Lacking an appreciation for this divergence from Cold War assumptions could instigate nuclear instability, misperception, and even inadvertent escalation.  

“When a nuclear weapon state feels its national interests are threatened, then it will have less incentives to reduce risks.”

Dr. Tong Zhao

Discussing the challenges of institutionalizing nuclear risk reduction with China, Dr. Sechser mentioned the importance of nuclear learning. He indicated that the U.S. and Soviet approaches to nuclear risks came from their lived experience of nuclear danger during the Cold War. The threat of nuclear armageddon and the experience of shared early crises convinced the U.S., its NATO allies, and Russia to devise crisis communications mechanisms to reduce risk. The recent news of Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security advisor, engaging in confidential conversations with top aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized Washington and Moscow’s ability to keep the lines of communication open even in the midst of the war in Ukraine. And Dmitry Stefanovich observed that open channels are preventing unintended incidents in the Baltic Sea amidst several NATO and Russian military exercises. China has not had analogous experiences, nor have Washington and Beijing worked out diplomatic channels as candid as Washington and Moscow. Dr. Zhao highlighted that Chinese officials perceive international crisis communications with apprehension because they suspect vulnerabilities within the communication systems themselves that if introduced, would be exploited by Beijing’s adversaries. The 2022 Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China further solidifies U.S. emphasis on risk reduction and crisis communications, as well as China’s reluctance to place similar priority on them. 

In the search for a common denominator that advances risk reduction, it is important to find modern crisis communication pathways acceptable to all nuclear weapons states–especially a reluctant Beijing. In the 2022 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, the United States maintains its faith in crisis communication. Yet work remains to be done to find a system that all nuclear weapons states can be comfortable using. Technical options like CATALINK, an additive, resilient global communications system, could provide one solution–or at least the opportunity for increased dialogue around reinvigorating crisis communications.