Arms Control in Today’s (Dis)Information Environment: Part II

Conducting diplomacy in a world of infotainment hot takes and social media hate tweets.

When the United States and Soviet Union agreed to begin the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) – the first sustained bilateral negotiations on controlling nuclear armaments held between the two superpowers – the news was an international sensation. Journalists from around the world gathered in Helsinki in November 1969 hoping to file stories on groundbreaking, high-stakes negotiations. But as weeks passed with only anodyne press releases issued by the US side (and nothing from the Soviet camp), disappointed reporters left to cover other stories.

The early days of the talks foreshadowed negotiations that occurred in something of an information vacuum. Official government publications rarely revealed much of interest, and those controlled by the Soviet Union (such as “Pravda”) were considered mostly propaganda. The talks and the subjects they covered were opaque to the world and to most members of the US and Soviet publics. This extended to the Soviet delegation itself, whose diplomats typically received only cursory briefings about their country’s military capabilities. Indeed, Soviet military officials complained to their American counterparts that during negotiations the US side kept bringing forward details about the Soviet nuclear arsenal that even ambassadors appointed by Moscow were not supposed to know.

Soviet diplomats were not the only ones in the dark. Satellite photography was in its infancy; the United States’ highly-classified CORONA satellites delivered film to earth via capsules requiring mid-air “bucket catch” retrieval by the Air Force. The ground-breaking program ultimately produced imagery allowing analysts to identify objects down to six feet in length. For years this type of photography, and the means to recover, process, and interpret it, remained the preserve of the two superpowers.

The next round of US-Russia nuclear arms control talks will take place in an information environment radically different from the late ‘60s and even significantly evolved from when the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was negotiated from April 2009 to April 2010. These changes will pose challenges to the US negotiating team and its prospects for successfully concluding a new treaty.

First, the negotiating team will operate within a 24-hour news cycle and an increasingly fractured, polarized, and contentious US media environment. Most of the journalists covering the talks will be unfamiliar with the topics under discussion – long gone are the days when Strobe Talbott, then of TIME magazine, could spend years writing articles and books exploring the arcana of superpower nuclear arms control negotiations. Moreover, New START’s negotiation occurred during a time of relative US-Russia détente when the countries’ presidents could sit down and bond over hamburgers. The next delegation will have to contend with Russian government-sponsored media outlets such as RT (whose RT America launched in 2010, shortly after the channel’s re-brand from its original “Russia Today”), which will put Moscow’s spin on the talks and spread disinformation if the Kremlin concludes this helps advance its negotiating positions. While none of these factors is entirely new, the US negotiating team should prepare to counter poorly informed or deliberately false narratives that could put them at a disadvantage within talks or otherwise jeopardize the prospects of reaching an agreement.

Cold War-era diplomats never had to contend with social media (although it is fun to speculate about what 1970s Henry Kissinger might have posted to Instagram), and during the 2009-10 New START talks Twitter still retained much of its original page design, had not yet begun to feature “promoted” tweets from advertisers, and had approximately 30 million monthly active users (compared to 353 million in late 2020).

Second, the next round of negotiations will take place at a time when diplomats compose both tweets and communiques. Cold War-era diplomats never had to contend with social media (although it is fun to speculate about what 1970s Henry Kissinger might have posted to Instagram), and during the 2009-10 New START talks Twitter still retained much of its original page design, had not yet begun to feature “promoted” tweets from advertisers, and had approximately 30 million monthly active users (compared to 353 million in late 2020). During the negotiation of New START the Russian government was on the cusp of joining Twitter, with the official Russian presidential account going active in October 2010 and the Russian Foreign Ministry joining in February 2011. These and other Russian government accounts now regularly slam the United States on arms control issues, with the Russian Embassy in Washington DC recently issuing tweets denigrating the State Department’s annual arms control and nonproliferation compliance report as “another example of [American] hypocrisy” full of “false accusations” and “information noise.” These tweets are part of a long-term effort by the Kremlin to depict the United States as a serial violator of treaty commitments and international law – an enduring theme in its ongoing information warfare campaign against the US government. During the last round of US-Russian talks on nuclear arms control issues in 2020, for example, a high-level Russian diplomat tweeted that the lead US negotiator and his colleagues were “professional cheaters.” Even if these accounts dial back this rhetoric during future talks, it will be important for the US delegation to recognize the other side will utilize multiple forms of social media to provide a running pro-Russian commentary on the proceedings. With large numbers of people in the United States and abroad increasingly getting their news from social media, the US side should prepare to be an active and dynamic presence on more than one platform.

Future negotiating delegations will also be on unfamiliar territory due to the unprecedented transparency visual imagery now provides on states’ nuclear forces. While the wet film dropped from space during the 1960s that helped the United States prepare for nuclear arms talks with the Soviet Union was replaced by digital imagery many years ago, the number of commercial providers (and the terrabytes of data they collect on a daily basis) has dramatically increased in the decade since the negotiation of New START. Images of 10 meters resolution are available for free online, while photographs of much greater fidelity can be purchased from private firms. The latter have already helped US think tank researchers uncover previously hidden details about foreign nuclear programs, allowing them to count Chinese Jin-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines and find evidence a North Korean submarine-launched ballistic missile test proclaimed as a success actually failed. Whether this greater transparency helps or hinders future nuclear arms control negotiations remains to be seen. If a party concludes these developments make its existing nuclear forces more vulnerable, it may choose to build up its numbers rather than seek negotiated reductions. Nevertheless, the increasing availability of this type of imagery will be an important factor within future talks, informing perceptions of nuclear competition and shaping verification regimes. Unfortunately, this will not end efforts to spread disinformation, as imagery can be doctored or selectively curated to tell a specific story.

The above developments have important implications for future US nuclear arms control negotiators, who will conduct talks within an information environment significantly more complex than their Cold War predecessors (and much more contentious than during New START negotiations). This article offers three suggestions to help equip the team for success:

Nuclear arms control talks once proceeded at the pace of snail mail. Contemporary negotiators must now contend with infotainment hot takes and social media hate tweets. The above suggestions can help prepare the next US negotiating team to navigate this increasingly fraught (dis)information environment while also finding new ways to reach, and educate, US and foreign audiences on nuclear arms control.

Justin Anderson is a Senior Policy Fellow at National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the US government.

This is the second in a series of articles on Arms Control in Today’s (Dis)information Environment by National Defense University’s Sarah Jacobs Gamberini, Justin Anderson, and Jaclyn Kerr. The first, on trust in the age of disinformation, can be found here. The goal of the series is to contribute to a discussion about how disinformation poses a challenge to the negotiation and implementation of future arms control treaties and agreements. The third article will discuss how the United States and allies should work to establish practices, tools, and institutions necessary to limit the impact of disinformation in the arms control space.