The two-peer problem is the challenge of deterring and potentially defending against two nuclear-weapon states simultaneously: Russia and China. It was noted that the whole of tripolar interactions is more complicated than the sum of dyadic interactions. Strategic cooperation between Russia and China further complicates this dynamic. It was highlighted that this was both an emerged and an emerging problem, with planners needing to consider the current strategic environment, but also hedge against longer-term developments to Russian and Chinese nuclear forces. More specifically, the United States needs to confront the problem of potentially being simultaneously involved in two theatres: European and Asian-Pacific. This has important implications for US extended deterrence, and for NATO specifically. It is unlikely that a crisis or war would be confined to one geographical domain only, highlighting the threat of opportunistic or co-ordinated aggression by the second actor if the US is engaged in war with the first. It was noted that for NATO, the most likely pathway was a conflict emerging in China first, which may encourage a Russian opportunistic attack in Europe.
In order to deal with this challenge, there was a proposal to change the US’s force posture, while maintaining its strategy of counterforce for both peers. This proposal included increasing the number of deployed US nuclear warheads from reserves (particularly, after the expiry of the New START Treaty), increasing US forward deployed nuclear capabilities, and increasing regional conventional and nuclear burden-sharing onto allies in both Europe and Asia-Pacific. In considering the Russian and Chinese reactions to this proposal, some participants highlighted the escalatory risks for the proposal, questioned why current strategic levels were not sufficient, and wondered about the role of tactical nuclear weapons in this environment. There was also debate about the depth, strength, and durability of the Russian and Chinese partnership. Others highlighted limitations on industrial capacity as well as political will. It was noted that both action and inaction can carry risks: policy recommendations will depend on which risks are decision-makers more willing to take.
Not all participants agreed with the framing of the problem. Some argued that the ‘two-peer challenge’ is a US framing, rather than a NATO one: for NATO Allies, Russia remains the main and current problem, emphasising that a nuclear scenario with China directly involving NATO is unlikely. Under this logic, the main problem is confronting that Europe may become a second priority for the US, and the implications for NATO security and deterrence.
The unique position of France, as a NATO nuclear-weapon state outside of the NPG was raised. France supports NATO deterrent efforts, and includes a ‘European dimension’ to its ‘vital interests’ for which nuclear weapons could be used if they were threatened. It was highlighted that France’s position outside the NPG enhances NATO’s overall deterrence posture: it complicates Russia’s targeting decisions against NATO, as Russia needs to consider France’s separate nuclear capabilities and potential responses. To maintain its credible deterrent, France did a series of modernisation, and passed its latest Loi Programmation Militaire, amounting to investment of 413 billions euros over the 2024-2030 period. Whilst it is highly unlikely in the near future that France joins back the NPG, or takes part in joint military exercises, there are other ways France could further support NATO’s defence and deterrence posture. It was suggested that France could place greater emphasis on the European dimension of its ‘vital interest’.