International security is inherently a secretive business. Governments and militaries like to hide their capabilities and plans from their rivals. Yet in the post-Cold War years, states began to become more transparent about their military postures, aiming to create a new sense of international cooperation and openness. This process has now gone into reverse, with post-Cold War transparency arrangements in sharp decline.
With the war in Ukraine signaling a new era of great power conflict and mistrust, can international organizations like the United Nations do anything to maintain some transparency over security affairs between states?
The idea that multilateral bodies should promote transparency in international security matters can be traced to the League of Nations, which published both an Armaments Yearbook and statistical information on military expenditures. The league notoriously put out its last such yearbook in the summer of 1940, just as Nazi Germany’s army was rampaging through France.
The majority of current U.N.-based and non-U.N.-based transparency mechanisms are of more recent vintage. The U.N. asked its member states to start submitting information on defense spending to a U.N. Report on Military Expenditures, or UNMILEX in 1980. It established a separate U.N. Register on Conventional Arms, or UNROCA, in 1991.
The early 1990s also saw a surge of much more ambitious non-U.N.-based agreements aimed at increasing military transparency in Europe. These included the Conventional Forces in Europe, or CFE, Treaty in 1990, which established both limits to troop deployments on the continent and mechanisms to verify them, and the Open Skies Treaty, which allowed participating states to send observation flights over each other’s territory, in 1992. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s “Vienna Document,” dating to 1990, called for information exchanges and consultations by member states regarding forces and exercises. While there has been less innovation since then, in 2013 the Arms Trade Treaty, or ATT, directed parties to report “authorized and actual exports and imports of conventional arms.”
Many of these mechanisms are now defunct or in disarray. NATO members refused to ratify a 1999 update to the CFE Treaty due to Russia’s troop presences in Georgia and Moldova. Russia “suspended” its participation in the treaty in 2007 and “halted” compliance in 2015, although it never formally withdrew. The Trump administration withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty in 2020, and Russia followed suit in 2021. Moscow also denied Vienna Document commitments to permit international scrutiny of its military build-up around Ukraine in 2021 and 2022.
But if Russia seems bent on ripping up the European security playbook, the decline of transparency arrangements is often a widespread and more gradual phenomenon. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, notes that the number of states submitting data to U.N. mechanisms has “decreased drastically.” Just 40 of the U.N.’s 193 member states submitted reports on military spending to UNMILEX in its 2021 reporting cycle. The number of states reporting arms transfers to UNROCA has been at similar levels in recent years.
The quotidian business of sharing information on conventional arms, weapons sales and military exercises through multilateral mechanisms has a diplomatic value all of its own.
The decline of these multilateral mechanisms does not mean that there is no transparency at all. Most importantly, transparency mechanisms on U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons, encoded in the New START Treaty, remain in force. Beyond the U.N., institutes such as SIPRI itself have always played an important part in collecting and disseminating information on security matters, and they continue to do so. Many countries that have failed to supply information to UNROCA and UNMILEX nonetheless publish respectable national summaries of their military spending and capabilities. Investigators like Bellingcat have revealed a remarkable amount about states’ military activities using open-source intelligence.
Indeed, some analysts project that we are in fact entering a new “age of transparency” in which “the forces of technology are ushering in a new age of openness that would have been unthinkable just decades ago.” The U.S. and its allies embraced this trend in the run-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine this year, sharing an unprecedented amount of intelligence on Russia’s military preparations to both successfully convince wavering Western countries that the threat was real and unsuccessfully deter Moscow from carrying through with its operation.
Nonetheless, the quotidian business of sharing information on conventional arms, weapons sales and military exercises through multilateral mechanisms has a diplomatic value all of its own. Where states are willing to exchange data, and especially when they are willing to allow other states or multilateral actors to test that data’s veracity, they can prove their credibility and create the basis for security dialogues. Even if states may not trust one another, they can learn to trust the institutions and processes that enable information-sharing.
The International Crisis Group has emphasized the importance of such processes in the case of the Persian Gulf, where military transparency has been sorely lacking. In a 2020 report on the region, Crisis Group recommended a phased approach to building trust, starting with the creation of military hotlines and, after further steps, culminating in gestures including “prior notification of troop movements and military exercises; [and] allowing adversaries to send military experts to observe such maneuvers.”
There is thus still a case for promoting multilateral security transparency mechanisms that enjoy widespread credibility and can facilitate confidence-building measures. This is all the more pressing as military spending is rising in almost all regions, and states are liable to be nervous about how their rivals are using these funds. The spread of new battle-winning platforms, such as drones, and technologies, like cyber-weapons, will only increase unease and distrust.
But if there is a logical case for rethinking and reviving transparency tools, many states are likely to focus instead on deterrence—and building up their own arsenals—in the coming years. There may be relatively few voices in the international arena calling for more openness for some time.
Against this backdrop, it comes down to organizations like the U.N., and leaders like Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, to keep making the case for transparency and confidence-building. The U.N. Secretariat does not have the leverage to make states share major secrets on their weapons programs through multilateral channels. But it does have arms control experts on its staff to work up ideas about what future transparency mechanisms could look like, and the secretary-general has the convening power to stir up further debate on this topic.
Last year, Guterres announced that the U.N. would work up a “New Agenda for Peace” by 2023 to outline collective responses to security threats. This year he appointed a High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism to think about the future of global governance. It would be a good idea for those working on these processes to address the decline of security transparency mechanisms head on and table some fresh ideas about how to revive information-sharing and openness in an era of gathering international mistrust and suspicion.