Michael KreponOn the Objectives of Arms Control

Quote of the week:

“If arms control were killed, it would have to be reinvented.” – Paul Warnke

The canonical objectives of Cold War-era arms control were laid out in the seminal book by Thomas Schelling and Mort Halperin, Strategy and Arms Control (1961): the avoidance of a war that neither side wants, minimizing the costs and risks of the arms competition, and curtailing the scope and violence of war in the event it occurs.

Herman Kahn (with Anthony Weiner) had a somewhat similar take. Writing in the journal Astronautics and Aeronautics (December, 1967), he opined that the objectives of arms control were “to improve the inherent stability of the situation, decrease the occasions or the approximate causes of war within the system, and decrease the destructiveness and other disutilities of any wars that actually occur.” Kahn also agreed with Schelling and Halperin that saving money – decreasing “the cost of defense preparation” – was important, although he placed it lower in his list of priorities.

Bernard Brodie weighed in on this debate in the first issue (Summer 1976) of International Security. [Side note for Wonks: This volume is worth finding. Other essays were written by Hedley Bull, James Schlesinger, Maxwell Taylor, Thomas Schelling and Donald Brennan.] For Brodie, then a political science professor at UCLA, the objectives of arms control should be “mutually consistent, to be worth achieving, and to be in some degree achievable.” His last point would set him crosswise with contemporary Abolitionists, but Abolitionists were hard to find during the formative decades of arms control.

Back then, Brodie was in a particularly quarrelsome mood. He took issue with the oft-stated objectives of reducing the probability of war or its destructiveness should war occur, arguing that the probability of war between the superpowers was “extremely low,” and that, “in any case, we cannot do much about that probability through arms control.” As for limiting the destructiveness of war, Brodie argued that this could only be achieved through very low numbers among nuclear-armed states, rather than through counterforce capabilities. Of all the stated objectives of nuclear arms control, Brodie was most sympathetic to cost savings. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was, in his view, a prime example of not wasting tax dollars on expensive and technically deficient weapon systems.

With the benefit of hindsight, have the canonical objectives of nuclear arms control been met or surpassed? Or has this effort been largely wasted, disappointing or unnecessary?

The goal of saving money – the ABM Treaty aside — was fanciful because treaties usually fostered spending sprees to help persuade the Senate to consent to ratification and to exploit or counter loopholes in the deals struck. There was a “building holiday” (to borrow a phrase from the era of naval arms control in the 1920s and 1930s) after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the negotiation of deep strategic arms reductions, but this era ended when the Russian Federation recovered sufficiently to recapitalize its nuclear forces, lending impetus to a trillion-dollar-plus US plan to replace all three legs of its aging Triad. In retrospect, prospective cost savings were mostly ephemeral. But Schelling, Halperin and Kahn were right in arguing that saving money wasn’t what the Arms Control Enterprise was primarily about. Cost savings wouldn’t be worth a damn if the end result was nuclear warfare.

The era of nuclear arms control was marked by the absence of war between major powers. Can we thank the Bomb for this, or arms control, or both? In my view, both were contributing factors to the avoidance of a war that neither superpower wanted. Since arms control didn’t end geopolitical competition, mechanisms to reduce nuclear dangers were still warranted. These mechanisms were enabled and reinforced by treaties. Even if the probability of war was low, as Brodie asserted – a contestable judgment, especially during periods of crisis when even low probabilities generated great anxiety – the possibility of uncontrolled escalation couldn’t be wished away.

The practice of placing limits on nuclear weapon systems helped to reinforce the commonsense notion that these weapons were a breed apart. This distinction was crucial because without it, the norm of non-battlefield use would be much harder to achieve. Every step of nuclear arms control helped make the norm on non-battlefield use possible – even though neither superpower accepted a No First Use nuclear posture.

Nuclear arms control wasn’t just about numbers and timelines; it was about acknowledging responsibility to avoid dangerous military practices that could result in the battlefield use of nuclear weapons. It was no coincidence that the superpower agreement to avoid incidents at sea was finalized in 1972, the same year as the first Strategic Arms Limitation accords, or that Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers were established in 1987, the same year that the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed. An agreement to prevent dangerous military practices on the ground and in the air followed two years later. Nuclear arms control enabled nuclear risk reduction. Conversely, nuclear risk reduction faltered without the prospect of successful arms control. Without both nuclear arms control and risk reduction, battlefield use would have been harder to prevent, with the attendant risks of being unable to curtail the scope and violence of war. The only way this objective could be achieved was to prevent the first mushroom cloud.

Skeptics of arms control credit nuclear deterrence instead of arms control for these achievements. They argue that, when arms control was most needed, it failed (never mind that when arms control was most needed, they opposed it tooth and nail). When arms control was possible, it wasn’t needed. This tired litany assumes that nuclear deterrence, which is all about threats to punish, has kept the peace. But deterrence alone is not, ipso facto, stabilizing. The reverse is true: threats to punish by means of nuclear weapons are, by definition, dangerous, not to mention immoral in almost all cases. Deterrence needed arms control as much as arms control needed deterrence to avoid a war and the employment of military options that neither superpower wanted.

Absent nuclear restraints codified in treaties, superpower friction would have become more intense and the management of friction more difficult. Besides, the “beneficiaries” of deterrence didn’t feel like entrusting their well being to the Bomb. Deterrence alone is a defective insurance policy. The beneficiaries of this insurance policy want their leaders to actively seek to reduce nuclear dangers and to avoid battlefield use. Those living under the nuclear umbrella don’t feel safer without arms control because they aren’t comfortable relying solely on deterrence.

To give Brodie his due, one’s view of the utility of arms control ought to be informed by one’s view of the probability of war. To follow Brodie’s logic, the higher the probability of war, the more useful, in theory, arms control should become. But in actual practice, the reverse has been the case: the higher the probability of friction between major powers, the less utility they perceive arms control to offer. Limiting the utility of arms control to worst cases doesn’t make sense because there is also great utility in keeping the probability of war low between nuclear-armed states. At the present juncture, when relations between major powers are deteriorating, and when the threat posed by major powers is the centerpiece of the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, there is little-to-no perceived interest in Washington, Moscow and Beijing for arms control.

So where do we go from here? Basic questions might serve as a useful starting point. Which is safer and better: a world with or without some form of arms control? Which of these worlds is more likely to tame dangerous practices of deterrence, reduce tensions between major powers, and make the battlefield use of nuclear weapons less likely?

The first attempt by major powers to limit strategic arms and curtail arms racing was, as noted above, in the 1920s and 1930s. Strategic arms back then were capital ships that could travel long distances to train their big guns against opposing warships or targets on land. The 1922 Washington Naval Treaty and the 1930 London Treaty have taken their lumps because of their loopholes and “escalator” clauses. More critically, these treaties didn’t prevent another world war. When, in late 1934, Japan provided formal notification of its intention to withdraw from the naval treaty regime, the writing was on the wall for those who cared to read it. The naval arms control regime ended in 1936, fourteen years after its initiation.

If we track the beginning of the nuclear arms control regime from the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Interim Agreement and ABM Treaty, it has fared far better than naval treaty regime. Formalized constraints on national missile defenses were in place for three decades, permitting the capping and then deep cuts in bloated arsenals. Codified limits on strategic offensive forces currently extend to 2021, a half-century-long enterprise.

During this time, Washington and Moscow managed to avoid a war that neither side wanted. But tensions are again on the rise and agreements to prevent dangerous military practices have fallen by the wayside. In three short years, US and Russian constraints on nuclear forces could be over and done with. Treaties do not adapt well to changing power equations and can’t prevent shifts in the status quo when a major power acts on its discontent.

As friction and nuclear dangers grow, public sentiment in the West for reducing nuclear dangers will also grow. The canonical objectives of arms control formulated in the early 1960s served their purpose during the Cold War. Arms control has since lost its cachet. A new conceptualization will be needed for the challenges that lie ahead.


  1. Sultan (History)

    “Arms control has since lost its cachet. A new conceptualization will be needed for the challenges that lie ahead.” – Would be useful if you could share your thoughts on the future framework.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      I need to think much more about this before offering ideas.
      Best wishes,

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I see nothing wrong with the old framework of arms control, other than its current unpopularity. No framework at all presumably means arms races and potential wars. One can propose alternate ways of pursuing arms control, such as international institutions that would be more effective at negotiating and enforcing future arms control agreements.

  2. Phil Tanny (History)

    There are all kinds of interesting calculations one can do over a limited time frame, such as the 70 years since Hiroshima. Over a longer time frame the uncertainties which fuel such calculations begin to melt away and we are left to either escape in to fantasy, or face the historical reality.

    A consistent pattern has characterized human history since at least the invention of agriculture. Things go along pretty well for awhile and then every so often we go bat #$% crazy. There never was any logic to invading each other’s lands and burning down each other’s towns, but we did it anyway, again and again and again, way too many times to begin to count.

    This pattern arises out of the fundamental nature of the human mind and is thus not editable for long by any situation or technology, that’s what the evidence is telling us. Whatever the situation, whatever the technology available at the time, sooner or later we use all available tools to slaughter each other with wild abandon.

    All the arms control mechanisms, MAD strategies, negotiations and maneuvers etc depend for their success upon the wacko notion that human beings can be counted on to act rationally. In the short run this is often true, but over the longer run it’s never true.

    What such an analysis reveals is that the challenge we face is far larger than nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are only the current symptom of the underlying threat, which is a simplistic, outdated and dangerous “more is better” relationship with knowledge. To illustrate, if nuclear weapons were to all be abducted by aliens we would simply continue to produce other powers of ever larger scale at an ever faster pace until they threaten civilization just as nuclear weapons do today.

    The underlying problem is that we don’t actually respect the awesome power of knowledge. We are like the guy who thinks he’s really clever and can outwit the ocean, so he goes sailing as a hurricane approaches.

    We’re in a race between our ability to produce new knowledge and power, and our ability to adapt to the revolutionary new situation these powers create. The odds are not in our favor, so we’d be wise to eat, drink and be merry while that opportunity is still available.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      “There never was any logic to invading each other’s lands and burning down each other’s towns” The logic was survival and reproduction. If I can steal my neighbor’s land and women, I can feed myself better and have more children. Selfishness is not morally pretty, but it does have logic.

      War happens at the national or tribal level, not the individual level. We can hypothesize that some (though not all, or even most) individual violence is “crazy,” but this says little about why tribes or nations go to war. Nations and tribes go to war for various other reasons, not because they frequently go “crazy.”

      We deter and reduce violence by individuals and small groups within a nation, through good governance, social conditioning, and punishment of violent individuals. Similar concepts could be applied to war and violence at the international level.

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