Minilateralism, effective multilateralism and the global nuclear order

How can minilateralism better complement effective multilateral institutions, particularly in the global nuclear order where multilateral stagnation and deadlock have become such pressing challenges? In the wake of the 2023 report by the High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism, this new article by Megan Dee argues that minilateral groupings can complement effective multilateralism, but only when they are willing and able to proactively integrate their activities within established wider membership multilateral institutions, and when they, in turn, are perceived as legitimate.

According to the 2023 report of the High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism [HLAB] global nuclear weapons governance is associated with ‘deadlock in multilateral processes’ and ‘stagnation’ in the pursuit of denuclearization. Interestingly, the HLAB report particularly highlights that for multilateralism to be effective it must be flexible, ‘allowing sub-groupings of states to explore, innovate, and implement new approaches to global problems for broader deliberation and adoption’. In short, minilateralism, or the “bringing together of the smallest possible number of countries needed to have the largest possible impact on solving a particular problem”, is called for.

Yet both the concept of minilateralism, and how complementary it actually is to effective multilateral institutions remains under studied and uncertain. While considered an efficient, and pragmatic solution to overcoming transnational problems, minilateralism has also raised pressing questions – and concerns – over its exclusivity, lack of transparency, equity, and accountability.

Important to highlight is that minilateralism is above all a relational concept – we can only ever really understand minilateralism as it relates to established wider membership multilateral institutions and their efforts to tackle transnational problems. Minilateralism may be pursued by groups of states exclusively inside established multilateral institutions, being integrated into the deliberative and negotiation processes of that institution, or exclusively outside of those institutions, operating as separate deliberative and decision-making forums which then essentially bypass multilateralism institutions. Minilateralism is also a fluid praxis. Groups of states may shift their positioning and activities away from an established multilateral institution (inside-outside) or toward it (outside-inside). Which type of minilateralism groups of states will then pursue is largely conditional on how they continue to perceive the effectiveness and legitimacy of established wider membership multilateral institutions, and the extent to which they will seek to uphold or bypass those institutions as a primary focal point for tackling transnational problems.

Minilateralism in the global nuclear order

Within the global nuclear order, most outside minilateral groupings – such as the NSG, PSI, GICNT etc – are initiated and led by nuclear weapon states apart from multilateral institutions. Members are then either hand-picked by the US or other nuclear weapon states, or are states willing to endorse the rules and principles already established by them. Such groupings then face a legitimacy deficit when they do seek to advance their solutions and ideas within wider membership multilateral institutions, however, because they are perceived as US-dominated, exclusive and untransparent.

Inside minilateral groupings – such as the VG10, NAC, NPDI or Stockholm Initiative – by contrast tend to be pursued predominantly by non-nuclear-weapon states. These groups seek out cross-regional members and proactively integrate and publicize their activities within the negotiation and deliberation processes of wider membership multilateral institutions such as the NPT. They therefore face fewer legitimacy challenges when they do present minilateral ideas or solutions because they are already embedded within established multilateral processes.

Lessons can also be drawn from those outside-inside minilateral groupings – such as the Zangger Committee or Quad Nuclear Disarmament Verification Partnership – who, while operating as outside groupings, do also seek to integrate their activities within NPT review cycles, highlighting their willingness to proactively engage in multilateral deliberation and negotiation processes.

Meanwhile, examples of inside-outside groupings, such as the G16/Humanitarian Initiative, and the CEND Initiative, highlight how groups of states may originally be conceived and function inside of multilateral institutions, but then shift their activities outside of those institutions when they become dissatisfied due to the perceived effectiveness or legitimacy deficit within that institution. In both cases the result has been the formation of new forums and a new regime -in the form of the TPNW – and an increasingly contested multilateralism within the global nuclear order.

Complementary – not contradictory – minilateralism

What is clear is the minilateralism is only going to become more important and utilized as states seek to deliver a world without nuclear weapons amidst the inefficiencies and challenges of multilateral efforts. Minilateralism can only truly complement, rather than contradict, effective multilateralism, however, when groups are willing and able to contribute to the negotiation and deliberative processes of wider membership multilateral institutions. The US particularly has shown that it can ‘go it alone’ by establishing outside minilateral forums, but such efforts invariably meet with resistance when trying to integrate back into multilateral institutions due to their perceived lack of transparency and legitimacy. As inside, and some outside-inside, minilateral groupings, have shown, minilateral groups can ensure their discussions and proposals are open for broader deliberation by proactively – and regularly – submitting working papers, making formal statements, submitting reports, and hosting side-events inside multilateral institutions like the NPT.

While minilateralism may demand exclusivity for the sake of more efficient decision-making, groups must also remain mindful of their perceived representativeness. While it is important that minilateral groupings remain closed to allow for states to move beyond entrenched positions and actively and creatively advance proposals to address problems, they must also remain transparent. At a minimum minilateral groupings should publicize their meeting dates and locations and provide regular reporting on their deliberations, and outputs so that non-participating governments and civil society are not left in the dark. Some transparency of process may be facilitated through dedicated group websites, following the example of the NSG, IPNDV, Quad and Zangger Committee. Multilateral institutions might also look to establish group sections on their websites, including a group filter in their public calendar of events.  In so doing, minilateralism can serve to uphold and promote the continued relevance, legitimacy and significance of multilateral institutions and their wider membership.

China’s nuclear expansion and the increasing risk of an arms race

Why is China expanding its nuclear arsenal? In his new article, Henrik Stålhane Hiim argues that concerns about the vulnerability of its nuclear forces is the main driver – and that there is little evidence of a change in China’s nuclear strategy.

In the summer and autumn of 2021, researchers revealed that China had started building more than 300 silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles in three different fields. The silo exposure made international headlines, and demonstrated that China had started a significant nuclear expansion. The US Department of Defense now assesses that China will possess over 1000 warheads by 2030, a fourfold increase in a decade. Even though the United States and Russia will continue to possess significantly larger arsenals, there is no doubt that China’s buildup represents a turn away from its traditional approach of maintaining a small nuclear force.

There is less agreement about why China is expanding its arsenal. In my article, I argue that there is still little evidence to suggest to that the expansion represents a change in China’s nuclear strategy. Chinese leaders have traditionally thought of nuclear weapons as having two functions: Deterring nuclear attacks from others, and countering nuclear blackmail or coercion. The buildup could enable later shifts in strategy, but there are still few signs of Chinese leaders fundamentally rethinking the purposes nuclear weapons serve in their defense policy.

I further find that the main driver of China’s expansion is concerns about US capabilities such as missile defense and highly precise nuclear and conventional weapons. Chinese sources indicate that worries about US nuclear policy have increased in recent years. Many in China fear the combination of weapons that can target its nuclear forces, and defenses that can intercept any surviving Chinese missiles. In tandem, they argue, such capabilities pose a major threat to China’s nuclear deterrent.

To be clear, other factors may also have influenced China’s buildup. Some analysts point to prestige and status concerns as a possible explanation. Others have indicated that the purpose of the expansion is to create a stronger “shield” to enable conventional aggression against Taiwan, which is possible, but not directly discussed in Chinese sources. Nevertheless, my findings indicate that concern about the vulnerability of its arsenal is likely to be the main driver. In particular, the Donald Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review was seen as alarming in China and contributed to increasing worries about the future strategic stability.

Towards an arms race?

My findings have implications for the debates about US nuclear policy. There is increasing discussion in the United States about whether to respond to China’s buildup through a similar expansion and by deploying new weapons systems. In October, the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States published its final report. The commission recommended to prepare to upload some or all of the warheads currently held in reserve. It further stated that the United States should deploy additional theater nuclear weapons with variable yield (or so-called tactical nuclear weapons) to the Indo-Pacific region. Similarly, a study group convened by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) recently argued that “The United States should plan and prepare to deploy additional warheads and bombs from the reserve.”

Unfortunately, my article indicates that such responses are very likely to lead to major arms race pressures. For example, influential US experts have argued that the United States should attempt to maintain a so-called damage limitation capability – that is, the ability to destroy or intercept as many Chinese nuclear weapons as possible in the event of an all-out war. The problem of this approach, however, is that Chinese leaders are no longer willing to live with a vulnerable arsenal. China is very likely to respond if its leaders and experts believe the United States is attempting to maintain a damage limitation capability.

Similarly, if the United States deploys new tactical nuclear weapons in Asia, the likelihood of China developing such weapons may increase. As experts from the Federation of American Scientists highlight, there is still no evidence that China plans to field a new low-yield warhead. However, my article highlights that Chinese experts are debating whether there is a need for such weapons as a response option vis-à-vis the United States.

Different nuclear schools of thought

As other scholars have also highlighted, the competing readings of China’s nuclear intentions, and of how the United States should respond, is in no small part informed by different assumptions and theories about nuclear strategy. Scholars who believe the balance of terror is delicate – and that states have incentives to pursue superiority – are likely to see China’s expansion as alarming. These scholars, whose views also appears to be at least partly shared by U.S. officials, fear China might be opting for a first-strike capability. Moreover, they argue that the United States should attempt to maintain its superior position.

My research demonstrates, however, that fears of China opting for nuclear superiority and a first-strike capability are overblown. Instead, China’s expansion aligns with the so-called nuclear revolution theory. A key tenet of this school of thought it that states should strive for a secure second-strike capability, but that pursuit of superiority is meaningless. So far, China appears to be acting like a good nuclear revolutionary. If it continues to do so, an arms race may still be at hand, albeit one less intense than the Cold War race.

Read the article “The last atomic Waltz: China’s nuclear expansion and the persisting relevance of the theory of the nuclear revolution” here

Winner of the 2024 Bernard Brodie Prize

Bernard Brodie lecturing, by Walter Sanders for Life Magazine, September 1946

Contemporary Security Policy awards the Bernard Brodie Prize annually to the author(s) of an outstanding article published in the journal the previous year. The award is named after Dr. Bernard Brodie (1918-1978), author of The Absolute Weapon (1946), Strategy in the Missile Age (1958), and War and Strategy (1973). Brodie’s ideas remain at the center of security debates to this day. One of the first analysts to cross between official and academic environments, he pioneered the very model of civilian expertise that Contemporary Security Policy represents. Contemporary Security Policy is honored to acknowledge the permission of Brodie’s son, Dr. Bruce R. Brodie, to use his father’s name.

The winner of the 2024 Bernard Brodie Prize is:

This article was selected by a jury consisting of five members of the Editorial Board. The jury selected the winner from a shortlist put together by the Editors. This shortlist also included:

The previous winners of Bernard Brodie Prize are:

  • Kjølv Egeland, “A theory of nuclear disarmament: Cases, analogies, and the role of the non-proliferation regime”, January 2022.
  • Eleanor Gordon and Katrina Lee-Koo, “Addressing the security needs of adolescent girls in protracted crises: Inclusive, responsive, and effective?”, January 2021;
  • Elvira Rosert and Frank Sauer, “How (not) to stop the killer robots: A comparative analysis of humanitarian disarmament campaign strategies”, January 2021;
  • Jeffrey Berejikian and Zachary Zwald, “Why language matters: Shaping public risk tolerance during deterrence crises”, October 2020;
  • Tracey German, “Harnessing protest potential: Russian strategic culture and the colored revolutions”, October 2020;
  • Jo Jakobsen and Tor G. Jakobsen, “Tripwires and free-riders: Do forward-deployed U.S. troops reduce the willingness of host-country citizens to fight for their country?”, April 2019;
  • David H. Ucko and Thomas A. Marks, “Violence in context: Mapping the strategies and operational art of irregular warfare”, April 2018;
  • Betcy Jose, “Not completely the new normal: How Human Rights Watch tried to suppress the targeted killing norm”, August 2017;
  • Martin Senn and Jodok Troy, “The transformation of targeted killing and international order”, August 2017;
  • Trine Flockhart, “The coming multi-order world”, April 2016;
  • John Mitton, “Selling Schelling Short: Reputations and American Coercive Diplomacy after Syria”, December 2015;
  • Wyn Bowen and Matthew Moran, “Iran’s Nuclear Program: A Case Study in Hedging”, April 2014;
  • Nick Ritchie, “Valuing and Devaluing Nuclear Weapons”, April 2013;
  • Patrick M. Morgan, “The State of Deterrence in International Politics Today”, April 2012;
  • Sebastian Mayer, “Embedded Politics, Growing Informalization? How Nato and the EU Transform Provision of External Security”, August 2011;
  • Jeffrey Knopf, “The Fourth Wave in Deterrence Research”, April 2010;
  • Diane E. Davis, “Non-State Armed Actors, New Imagined Communities, and Shifting Patterns of Sovereignty and Insecurity in the Modern World”, August 2009.

Call for the 2025 Special Issue

CSP CoverContemporary Security Policy is seeking proposals for a special issue to be published in January 2025 (volume 46(1)). The special issue should address a topic within the aims and scope of the journal. CSP has an impact factor of 5.900, which ranks the journal #3 out of 96 in the category International Relations.

One of the oldest peer reviewed journals in international conflict and security, CSP promotes theoretically-based research on policy problems of armed conflict, intervention and conflict resolution. Since it first appeared in 1980, CSP has established its unique place as a meeting ground for research at the nexus of theory and policy. Topics of interest include:

  • War and armed conflict
  • Peacekeeping
  • Conflict resolution
  • Arms control and disarmament
  • Defense policy
  • Strategic culture
  • International institutions

CSP is committed to a broad range of intellectual perspectives. Articles promote new analytical approaches, iconoclastic interpretations and previously overlooked perspectives. Its pages encourage novel contributions and outlooks, not particular methodologies or policy goals. Its geographical scope is worldwide and includes security challenges in Europe, Africa, the Middle-East and Asia. Authors are encouraged to examine established priorities in innovative ways and to apply traditional methods to new problems.

Special Issue Information

Special issue proposals should contain (in one PDF document):

  • A short discussion of the rationale and contribution of the special issue (3 pages max). Please also state why the topic falls within the aims and scope of the journal and why the proposal would be of interest to a large audience.
  • Contact details, institutional affiliation, one paragraph biography of the special issue co-editors, and three recent publications of each of the co-editors. Feel free to include a link to the personal website of the co-editors. Do not submit full CVs.
  • A list of confirmed articles and authors. Please include for each article (a) the title; (b) 150 word abstract; (c) a very short statement how the article contributes to the special issue and why it needs to be included; (d) a one paragraph author biography; and (e) three recent publications of the author(s).
  • The current state of the special issue. Please describe the background (e.g. previous workshops and conferences) and the timeframe towards the submission deadline.

The special issue will consist of a substantive introduction and 6-7 articles. The introduction should stand on itself. It should serve as a state-of-the-art article and be a reference point for all the other articles in the special issue. It is recommended that special issue proposals include 9-10 articles. All articles will be sent by the journal for peer-review on an individual basis. It is unlikely that all articles will eventually make the cut.

Most articles in CSP are around 9,000-10,000 words (including notes and references). However, manuscripts up to 12,000 words are accepted, for example when they include multiple case studies or use mixed methods. Total word limits will be discussed in case of acceptance.

Please submit your application (one PDF file) to csp@nullmaastrichtuniversity.nlThe deadline for the special issue proposal is 18 November 2023. The decision will be announced soon afterwards. The decision by the editors is final. All articles will have to be submitted by 16 February 2024. The full special issue should go into production in October 2024.