Michael KreponThe Cruel Politics of Arms Limitation

Arms limitation is ridiculously hard to explain and even harder to accomplish. Arms limitation is useful when dealing with bad actors that possess fearsome weapons. If success requires self-limitation as well, the results are often met with derision, since bad actors cannot be trusted. (See U.S. vs. Soviet Union/Russian Federation.) Even when success occurs without self-limitation, the results are subject to withering criticism. (See U.S. vs. Iran.)

Building nuclear weapons is not hard, if states conclude they are necessary and have the money to spend. Building nuclear weapons while seeking to limit the competition is harder. One head of the Strategic Air Command, General Tom Powers, likened this as trying to dress and undress at the same time.

The American public wants to avoid nuclear arms racing but is usually skeptical that successful arms limitation is possible. Success requires negotiation. Skeptics prefer dictation to negotiation. Arms-control negotiations may indeed fail, but dictation will most assuredly fail, even after defeating an adversary on the battlefield. A status quo established through dictation fails over time, sometimes leading to another war. (See World Wars I & II.)

Dictation in the guise of negotiation remains an appealing political posture for those who trust combat arms more than negotiations. This has not worked out so well for the United States in the Middle East (see the U.S. vs. Saddam Hussein, Iraq War II), but this hasn’t stopped arms-control skeptics from using this playbook. (See U.S. vs. Iran.)

You can’t always get what you want in warfare or in negotiations. Critics of negotiations sometimes claim that negotiations will end in warfare anyway. Perhaps this explains why critics advocate positions that will stymie negotiations, increasing the prospects for war.

If warfare is inevitable, why not just skip the step of talking that, in the view of critics, is doomed to fail? Because it is impolitic for War Hawks to be that direct. Instead, they find severe fault with U.S. negotiating positions and insist they could strike a better deal. Even while arguing that deal making is a fool’s errand. (Again, see U.S. vs. Iran.)

It is usually safer politically to criticize deals with bad actors than to support them, since the benefits of successful deals become evident many years later, when the criticisms are long forgotten. Can anyone remember the near-apocalyptic arguments offered by opponents of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty that banned mushroom clouds? In this rare case, advocates of the Limited Test Ban not only had persuasive arguments, but also could demonstrate immediate as well as long-term benefits.

The U.S. Constitution stipulates that treaty-making requires a super-majority in the Senate. Consequently, without support from Republican leaders, the Senate’s consent to ratification is unlikely. One manifestation of the crack-up of the Republican Party is that leaders have become followers, choosing to accommodate insurgents. Not one Republican on Capitol Hill supported an agreement that required the expatriation of over 90 percent of Iran’s bomb-making material. None of these naysayers offered a convincing, better outcome to a deal they strongly opposed. Nor did they have to: The burden of successful implementation is on advocates, not opponents, who now offer legislative initiatives that make successful implementation harder.

The Iran deal is a work in progress. It continues to be reviled despite proper implementation to date. It also provides the template for the next administration and its negotiating partners to tackle North Korea’s nuclear program.


  1. Cthippo (History)

    It would be interesting to look at the history of arms limitation treaties. While the Geneva accords banned the use of certain weapons, they said nothing about production or possession. As far as I know, the first consensual (as opposed to imposed on a defeated nation) arms limitation treaty that required nations to either forgo potential weapons or even scrap existing ones was the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. What’s particularly interesting about this treaty is that it was negotiated between putative allies who had just won a war together, but still distrusted each other enough to be willing to scrap their own ships in order to keep the other nations from building up their fleets.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      The 1922 Washington Naval Treaty was a significant success made possible by bold U.S. leadership and by war-weary states seeking to avoid significant new expenditures on capital ships, which were the “strategic” weapon systems of that era.
      Mr. Obama appears inclined to avoid the costs of maintaining New START force levels, if Mr. Putin can be persuaded to follow suit and accept deeper cuts. If Putin remains hesitant, the next administration might consider proceeding unilaterally with force structure deemed to be in excess of the Pentagon’s needs. Key question: Might this be a way to break the ice? Another: Would Putin be more or less inclined to follow U.S. unilateral reductions?

  2. Michael Krepon (History)

    ps: My preference, as stated in a previous ACW post, is to proceed bilaterally. But I’m not locked into waiting for years to hold onto excess force structure.

    • krepon (History)

      Nuclear Weapon Irrelevance = no explosive use, no tests, and brickbats for threatening use. And for the US, embracing No First Use. That would leave only Russia and Pakistan in North Korea’s company.

  3. Cthippo (History)

    Couple of thoughts….

    As much as I wish it were otherwise, I don’t think this is the season for arms control. The driving factor in US domestic politics right now is fear of change. Changing demographics, increasing multiculturalism and globalization are all chipping away at the privileged position of the white majority and the backlash is making itself felt. The fear of the other is palpable, but the threat is internal rather than external. Russia isn’t on the political radar except as a vague feeling that we should be able to dictate policy to them. No one outside our little community has arms control on their radar.

    I can’t speak for the Russian domestic situation, but I suspect Putin needs us as an enemy for his own legitimacy more than he needs a foreign affairs victory.

    The flip side of all this is reductions in arms may be possible simply because no one is paying attention. If the Pentagon got on board with force reductions in order to free up money for projects they care about and the whole thing was done on a low key basis without even mentioning Russia, then I can see a better chance of success. If a future president, with agreement from the Pentagon, took the position of “we have enough, these things are expensive, and we would rather spend the money elsewhere” then it could happen. A change in budgets is less contentious than getting a hostile senate to ratify a treaty.

    The head of OPEC is alleged to have said “the stone age didn’t end because they ran out of stones”. Likewise, the decline of coal fired power is coming about not because it has been outlawed, but because environmental awareness and changing economics have made it undesirable. So too it may be that the best way to reduce nuclear arsenals is not to outlaw them by treaty, but rather to reach a point where they are irrelevant.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Irrelevance = no explosive use, no tests, and brickbats for threatening use. And for the US, embracing No First Use. That would leave only Russia and Pakistan in North Korea’s company.

  4. Nathaniel Taylor (History)

    Is the Iran deal reviled? I know that the deal was polling abysmally low back in September when Pew put public support for the deal at 21% approve, 49% disapprove, and 30% offering no opinion. A more recent Gallup poll conducted at the beginning of February put the numbers at 30% approve, 57% disapprove, at 13% offering no opinion.

    In September Obamas poll numbers were around 45% approve and 50% disapprove. In February it was around 47%/49%. However, today Obama’s numbers are 50% approve and 45% disapprove. So while JCPOA’s media critics (many of whom happen to be critics of Obama more generally) are as loud and vociferous as ever, the American public seems to be listening to them less. I would be very interested to see Pew conduct another poll on the JCPOA.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      The public was not engaged in the issue. Pew found that between July and September 2015, roughly the period in which the deal was being debated, the percentage of people who reported even being aware of the deal declined! The results of polls on the merits of the deal fluctuated widely depending on the framing of the issue. Polling questions that actually explained the terms of the deal resulted in majority approval among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents (with Republicans approving more than independents). Fox News, on the other hand, was able to achieve 84% disapproval by simply asking people whether Iran should be allowed to get nuclear weapons in 10 years.


  5. Bradley Laing (History)

    The admiral responsible for the nuclear weapons component of ballistic missile submarines today praised the “truly unique” relationship with the British naval officers who have similar responsibilities, and said that historic cooperation would not be affected by Thursday’s vote to have the United Kingdom leave the European Union.

    Vice Adm. Terry Benedict, director of the Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs, said that based on a telephone exchange Thursday morning with his Royal Navy counterpart, “I have no concern.” The so-called Brexit vote – for British exit – “was a decision based on its relationship with Europe, not with us. I see yesterday’s vote having no effect.


    • Michael Krepon (History)

      But Scotland’s exit from the UK will.

  6. Bradley Laing (History)

    If that happens:

    Should someone fly British Regimental Colors from 1777 at dockside to welcome the UK submarines moving into, and staying at, US Navy bases?

    Or, Hessian Soldier regimental colors from 1777?

    Does the British public lose faith in a nuclear arsenal being so obviously reliant on the United States? And not want to pay fora Trident Replacement?

  7. Bradley Laing (History)

    Laser uranium enrichment technology may create new proliferation risks
    June 27, 2016


    “The paper, ‘A Proliferation Assessment of Third Generation Laser Enrichment Technology,’ will be published in Science & Global Security.”

    Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2016-06-laser-uranium-enrichment-technology-proliferation.html#jCp