The START of the end for Arms Control?

Art by Gabriella Turrisi

In a world wracked by pandemic, rising sea levels, and the scourge of cyber-attacks, it's easy to forget that there are still weapons out there that can kill hundreds of millions of people in less time than it takes you to read this article.

Why are we talking about nuclear arms control in 2020? After all, the Cold War ended 30 years ago, and few are old enough to remember the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It seems almost quaint to worry about nuclear weapons, or to imagine the crippling impact that Lyndon B. Johnson's "Daisy" campaign spot had on his rival Barry Goldwater in 1964.


Those weapons are still, of course, the most potent destructive forces that humankind has ever developed. Eight in ten Americans say it's important to preserve current arms control treaties. And three-quarters polled separately listed the spread of nuclear weapons more broadly as a top threat to US national security, tied with terrorism for second place overall behind infectious disease. (Cyber-attacks came third, just one point behind.)

But now the last remaining arms control treaty between the world's major nuclear powers – the US and Russia — is in danger of collapsing.

Negotiators from the two countries met in Vienna on Monday to haggle over if, and how, to extend the 2010 New START treaty, which limits the number of long-range nuclear weapons that each side can deploy to about 1,500 apiece and permits mutual inspections and monitoring of each other's arsenals.

Unless it's renewed again before February 2021, it will end. If that happens, there won't be any major arms control agreement or coordination between the two countries that own 90 percent of the world's nukes.

Trust is in short supply: last year, the United States walked out on the long-standing Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty — which had limited medium-range nuclear weapons — over concerns that Moscow was violating it.

So, now that the US and Russia have agreed to negotiate, what exactly does each side want? Russia wants to renew the existing treaty. The US has signaled openness to that idea, but Washington says any new pact must include China, a small but rising nuclear power.

Here's where things get tricky. China has so far refused to join. Why, Beijing asks, should a developing nuclear power – with only about 300 deployed weapons – cap its arsenal while the big players get to keep five times that many?

But if a new pact falls apart, all sides – including China — will be worse off. Why? Because what the countries would gain in leeway to develop their arsenals, they'd lose in transparency about what their rivals are up to.

This is why nuclear arms treaties still matter. Sure, limiting the number of nuclear weapons is important, but those caps still vastly exceed the number required to destroy the earth many times over. The real value of these treaties is that they give each nuclear power the right to see what its adversaries are up to. Less uncertainty means a lower risk of mistakes or accidents.

How does the threat of nuclear war rank for you? And what are the tradeoffs you see in trying to reach new arms control agreements?

A blue graphic using 1's and 0's to form an image of roads leading into a city

Governments, civil society and industry are beginning to understand the value of data to society in much the same way they considered the importance of thoroughfares 200 years ago. Just as these roads ushered in a new era of physical infrastructure that helped society thrive then, today we are beginning to understand the need to invest in modern approaches to our data infrastructure that will enhance economic growth and innovation, support individual empowerment and protect us from harm. Just as our physical infrastructure of roads and highways needs to be used appropriately, maintained and protected, so does our data infrastructure.

To maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of our data use, we need privacy regulations to serve as our global rules of the road that preserve our ability to use and share data across borders, supported by innovative tools and solutions that protect privacy and empower individuals. As we reframe our focus to support data use, let’s examine the regulatory approaches that have been working, and develop new approaches where needed to enable the responsible use and sharing of data. To read more about Microsoft’s approach to protecting data infrastructure, visit Microsoft on the Issues.

Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, our parent company, has opened this year’s GZERO Summit with a provocative speech on the near future of international politics. Here are the highlights.

Are the United States and China now locked in a new form of Cold War? Their governments behave as if they are.

But Bremmer isn’t buying it. He’s not predicting that Washington and Beijing will become more cooperative with one another, but that both will be too preoccupied with historic challenges at home in coming years to wage a full-time international struggle.

In Washington, the main worry will be for America’s broken political system. US politics is becoming even more tribalized as TV and online media target politically like-minded consumers with hyperpartisan news coverage. Widening wealth inequality fuels the fire by separating white and non-white, urban and rural, and the more educated from the less educated. Deepening public mistrust of political institutions will fuel future fights over the legitimacy of US elections.

Beijing’s burden centers on how to extend decades of economic gains while moving away from a growth model that no longer works, as higher wages in China and more automation in factories elsewhere cut deeply into China’s manufacturing advantages. China is still a middle-income country. To reach the prosperity level of wealthy nations, it needs 6-7 percent growth for another 20 years.

But China must spend less in coming years to keep giant, deeply indebted companies afloat and more to care for the largest population of elderly people in history. And its leaders must accomplish this at a time when China’s people expect ever-rising levels of prosperity from their government.

The domestic distraction of US and Chinese leaders will create new opportunities for European, Japanese, Canadian, Indian and other political and business leaders to contribute toward international problem-solving. But other governments aren’t the only new players stepping into this power vacuum.

Technology companies are fast becoming important geopolitical actors. We’re entering a world in which economic winners and losers, election outcomes, and national security will depend on choices made by both governments and by the world’s big tech firms.

Bremmer calls this a “techno-polar moment.”

The idea is simple but transformative: Just as governments make the laws that determine what can happen in the physical world, tech companies have final authority in a digital world that’s becoming both more expansive and more immersive.

The biggest tech companies will establish sovereignty by defining the digital space and its boundaries, the algorithms that determine what happens within that space, and the “terms and conditions” that decide who gets to operate in this world.

For skeptics, Bremmer poses this question: Who will do more to influence the outcome of next year’s US midterm congressional elections: The president of the United States or the CEO of Meta? According to Bremmer, since the vote will be influenced by both real-world rules changes and the online flow of information, the answer isn’t obvious.

How will tech companies try to expand their power? Some will behave as “globalists” by trying to reach consumers and influence politics everywhere.

Others will act as “national champions” by aligning with individual governments and their goals.

Still, others will behave as “techno-utopians,” companies that expect historical forces and tech innovations to help them replace governments in important ways.

The relative success of these models over the next decade will decide how government and tech companies share power over the longer-term and whether democracy or autocracy will have the upper hand.

What’s to be done? “Think adaptation, not surrender,” says Bremmer. Steps can be taken to limit the sometimes negative influence of tech companies in the political lives of democracies. But just as climate change can be limited but not avoided, so we must understand and adapt to a world in which governments and tech companies compete for influence over our lives.

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How is China able to control their tech giants without suppressing innovation?

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"In the United States you've got fanboys if you do that; in China, they cut you down," Bremmer told CNN anchor Julia Chatterley in an interview following his annual State of the World Speech.

Still, he says China knows it cannot kill its private sector because it needs to keep growing and competing with American tech firms.

So, who's winning the global battle for tech primacy?

Right now, Bremmer believes the US and China are at tech parity — thanks to their tech giants.

"When we're talking about tech supremacy, we can't just talk about governments anymore."

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