Michael KreponThe Golden Age of Nuclear Arms Control

Quote of the week:

“The fear of the bomb is not the beginning of wisdom. Fearful men have a kind of foresight, but in their partial view of the future all signs point to a foregone conclusion. How else could the frightening consequences of nuclear fission justify both McCarthyism and pacifism?” — Wayne A.R. Leys, “Human Values in the Atomic Age”

The thirteen-year period from 1987 to 2000 was the golden age of nuclear arms control. This golden age began when two risk-taking leaders cast off the spell of deterrence orthodoxy to sign the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev declared, quite sensibly but still remarkably, that a nuclear war could not be won and must not be fought, and then backed up their words with the INF Treaty, they broke the back of the nuclear arms race.

Washington and Moscow subsequently agreed to two strategic arms reduction treaties, a treaty mandating deep cuts in conventional forces in Europe, an “Open Skies” Treaty permitting cooperative over-flights from Vancouver to Vladivostok, a treaty banning the production, possession and use of chemical weapons, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, banning nuclear testing in all environments for all time.

This last achievement was the culmination of four decades of effort, initially prompted by public revulsion against atmospheric testing. Until the CTBT was finally negotiated, each nuclear test was a declaration of the Bomb’s power and utility. Each test also demonstrated faith and commitment to battlefield use in the event of a breakdown of deterrence. The absence of nuclear testing conveys a very different message — that nuclear weapons aren’t like other instruments of war that are regularly tested. They are different, a class apart. Major and regional powers have learned to live without these tests for the last two decades.

You sometimes hear the facile argument that the golden age of arms control became possible only when the Soviet Union was falling apart. This is like declaring that the Empire State Building only became a reality when the observation deck and spire were completed on its top.

Finishing touches should not be confused with the immensity of an extraordinary construction project. The golden age of arms control became possible because of decades of hard diplomatic labor. Deterrence alone didn’t establish conditions for success, because deterrence was and is about threatening terrible destruction. Deterrence doesn’t achieve deep cuts; diplomacy does.

One of the critical diplomatic achievements and preconditions for deep cuts was the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The first tranches of arms control were inconceivable without the ABM Treaty. Deep cuts became feasible when Reagan wished to pursue extravagant space-based missile defenses, and when Gorbachev figured out that the surest way to derail this project was to undercut its perceived need.  Thanks to George Shultz, Paul Nitze and others, Reagan sided with the dealers rather than the squeezers around him. Superpower arsenals then shrank by over 80 per cent.

Once the ABM Treaty was reaffirmed, agreements negotiated by George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin followed. Their 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty finally prohibited multiple warheads atop land-based missiles, a longstanding pursuit of arms controllers that corrected the permissiveness of the first strategic arms limitation accord. The disallowance of MIRVs atop ICBMs addressed the concerns of those most worried about Moscow’s nuclear war-fighting capabilities. For good measure, Bush 41 and Yeltsin also unilaterally removed some of their least safe and secure weapons from forward deployments. These momentous accomplishment have been or are being thrown away, thanks to Bush 43 and Donald Trump, with a major assist from Vladimir Putin.

The last hurrahs during the Golden Age occurred during the first term of the Clinton administration, which negotiated the removal of nuclear arms in the newly independent states of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus — states that had no controls, money or expertise to secure their sudden nuclear inheritance after the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Russia refused to implement strategic arms reduction treaties without the return of these weapons; the Nonproliferation Treaty would have been badly undermined, as well.

President Clinton also secured the indefinite extension of the Nonproliferation Treaty and the Senate’s consent to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention, negotiated largely during the George H.W. Bush administration. Clinton wasn’t done: he provided the impetus needed to conclude negotiations ending nuclear tests.

The theory and practice of arms control took hold when it was most needed. Arms control helped to prevent the Cold War from becoming hot and facilitated the draw down of nuclear excess once political conditions permitted. Equally if not more importantly, the interchanges and cooperative practices of arms control proved essential for Washington and Moscow to control loose nukes when the Soviet Union dissolved. Not one of the 39,000 poorly guarded weapons in the Soviet stockpile became a mushroom cloud — including weapons suddenly beyond Moscow’s grasp in the temporary possession of newly independent states.

Nuclear arms control was the least appreciated great achievement of the Cold War.

This success story has been mostly forgotten and is in the process of being dismantled. At the peak of its success at the turn of a new millennium, nuclear arms control began to unravel, along the nuclear safety net woven at great effort over the previous decades. The reasons for this dramatic turnaround will be assessed in another post.

Note to readers: This post is a foretaste of my book in progress on the rise, demise, and revival of nuclear arms control.


  1. E. Rhym (History)

    It is the Obama Administration that has made a mockery of strategic nuclear arms control as a USEFUL tool.

    Recall, the original START treaty placed throw-weight limits on each individual type of ICBM and SLBM, for which compliance was monitored by the mandatory exchange of telemetric information on every single launch of a treaty-accountable type of missile. This allowed each Party to verify the maximum payload capacity each type of ICBM or SLBM were capable of delivering to intercontinental range (as defined by the treaty). And while the Parties were allowed to MIRV their ICBMs and SLBMs under START, each individual type of ICBM or SLBM was attributed with a maximum number of warheads it was legally permitted to carry. These individual MIRV limits by missile type were also verified by the mandatory exchange of telemetric information, wherein each Party had to identify in the data provided the individual release commands for every reentry vehicle during every flight test. (Reentry vehicles or RVs were presumed to carry one accountable warhead.)

    However, when New START was negotiated, the Obama Administration disregarded throw-weight limits altogether along with the corresponding need for telemetry exchange, declaring that New START’s counting rules and inspection regime were superior to the original START because they would permit the Parties to count the “actual” number of warheads deployed on ICBMs and SLBMs. (More on this in a moment.) The Obama Administration treaty negotiators were prepared to conclude New START without any telemetry exchange requirement (because none was needed to verify anything!) and only added a telemetry provision late in the negotiations in order to provide political top cover to a handful of Republican Senators who needed it to approve the treaty during ratification proceedings–where significant, substantive criticism was levied against New START based on its lack of effective monitoring provisions and legally-binding constraints, especially when compared to the original START treaty (the absence of which, one should recall, was deemed critical to the justification for why “START Follow-On” negotiations were desperately needed). And chief among those criticisms (but certainly not singular) was the fact the new treaty would not require the exchange of telemetric information on Russian strategic systems–at precisely the time when Russia was modernizing both its ICBM and SLBM forces. And the kicker was that the fig leaf telemetry provision incorporated into New START merely permitted the Parties to “agree” to exchange telemetry on an “equal” number of ICBM and/or SLBM launches “up to five” per year (keeping in mind 0 is a number). Plus there is no requirement to provide telemetry either on all launches or on newly developed systems.

    The result of this negotiation failure by the Obama Administration was that not only did New START permit the Parties to continue to MIRV their ICBMs and SLBMs, but under New START Russia was allowed to develop MIRV-capable systems without providing the U.S. any information on the full weapon-delivery capacity of those systems (i.e., Russia does not have to provide or prove the throw-weight capacity of its new systems or information on its tested weapon-delivery capability). Nor was Russia constrained (as it was under the original START) from uploading warheads onto missiles that had previously been attributed (i.e., limited) under START to carry only a single warhead. So, Russia has proceeded to develop and field multiple new and/or improved, MIRV’d ICBMs and SLBMs for the past decade without New START constraining these developments — or even requiring any transparency into them. And while Russia is required by New START to declare the “actual” number of warheads emplaced on deployed ICBMs and SLBMs, U.S. inspectors are only permitted to spot check one deployed missile during each of only 10 possible inspections to ICBM bases or submarine bases. But if one doesn’t know the max throw-weight capacity of a new ICBM or SLBM, and one has not been provided flight test information to see how the weapon-delivery system is tested, the relative merits of seeing the “actual” number of warheads emplaced on a single ICBM or SLBM a handful of times per years is greatly limited (to understate the point). To the contrary, it is not hard to see how being allowed to count the “actual” number of warheads would be a net increase in information IF the START telemetry regime, including throw-weight limits and RV release commands, had been retained in New START. Unfortunately, that is not the case. (Oh, and as a side note: the counting rules for New START — which counts “actual” deployed warheads…except for heavy bombers, which are only attributed to carry one accountable warhead against the treaty’s central limit of 1550, despite the fact that these same bombers were attributed with 16-20 warheads under the original START…were claimed by the Obama Administration to result in 30-70% reductions in nuclear weapons! Such assertions are completely spurious, given that START and New START counted “warheads” entirely differently. For example, if one were to apply START counting rules vice New START counting rules to the current U.S. force structure, the U.S. would be attributed with over 4,000 warheads. While this number is still lower than the original START treaty limit of 6,000 accountable warhead limit, it may not be that much lower than the calculable number would have been during the interim between START and New START. [Note: This comparison is only possible on U.S. forces, since they have not been modernized. One cannot accurately conduct such an assessment of Russia’s force structure, since New START provided zero information on the capacity of their modernized and upgraded ICBMs and SLBMs, for the aforementioned reasons.])

    The list of deficiencies under New START as compared to the original START treaty (from your so-called “golden age of arms control”) extends beyond throw-weight limits and telemetry exchanges. It includes, among other things, the absence of any constraints on where mobile ICBMs can operate. Under New START there is no longer even a requirement that mobile ICBMs return to base whenever an American inspection team arrives to conduct a short-notice inspection (something that was required under START)–so Russia is legally permitted under New START to prevent the U.S. from ever inspecting a mobile ICBM and its associated launcher. Russia is no longer prohibited from developing and deploying Air-Launched Ballistic Missiles, as it was under START. There are significantly fewer inspections permitted, and there is substantially more time allotted between notification of a “short notice inspection” and the permitted time to arrive at the inspection site. And, of course, the headline item in the news today is that New START does not provide the means to prohibit or constrain new kinds of strategic weapons, like long-range nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons (potentially deliverable by treaty-unaccountable medium-range bombers), or unmanned nuclear torpedos, and insanely-conceived nuclear-powered, nuclear-capable cruise missiles. It only provides that the Parties may raise discussion of such potential or emerging new kinds of strategic weapons for discussion. And anyone paying attention to Russian public pronouncements about their alleged nuclear weapon developments can attest that Russia is defiantly asserting that they all fall outside the constraints of any nuclear arms control regime.

    So, this detailed (for a blog comment) discussion of the relative deficiencies of New START (as compared to your so-called golden age of arms control) is to backstop two key points: 1) you need to look no further than the Obama Administration to lay significant blame for the degradation of useful arms control (and I haven’t even addressed the multi and varied weak responses to Russia’s unlawful suspension of CFE, violation of INF and CWC, and failure to implement fully other legal obligations and political commitments in arms control; and 2) arms controls that are neither useful as negotiated or as implemented do not reduce risks, but rather can actually mask serious risks. But perhaps your okay with that…

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      My end date for the Golden Age of Arms Control was 2000.

  2. Mark Hibbs (History)

    Michael, l’m looking forward to your book. In the meantime, I’d be interested in your thoughts bringing this forward to now. In the fall of 2017 in Vienna I had a conversation in the back seat of a taxi with a senior official in the Obama administration. What I heard from this official was, to my mind, a shocking plea for the “morality of the theory of deterrence,” prompted by my somewhat disgruntled remarks beforehand that the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia, and I assume China (however taciturn as usual) were as we spoke trying to reach a common position to, as I understood it , discredit the Ban Treaty. The media, think-tank establishment, and at least some Obama appointees and staffers, to say nothing of the current administration, in the spirit of Washington’s P-5 understandings, currently don’t seem to have a problem with the idea that deterrence is the bottom line in evaluating whether the Ban Treaty is a good idea or not. Today, deterrence is everywhere. But as you said: “deterrence doesn’t achieve deep cuts.” So where in your view are we now?

  3. Michael Krepon (History)

    Mark, Thanks for the question.
    Deterrence is all about threats of horrific death and destruction. Don’t see much morality there.
    I view the Ban Treaty, in part, as the descendant of proposals and proposed treaties for General and Complete Disarmament in the 1950s. Last proposed by the US in ’62. Hortatory, not real. The Ban Treaty is more than this, however, as it seeks to advance a norm of nuclear abstinence. Those who support it have already pledged abstinence in the NPT. Will the Ban Treaty expand this cohort? Perhaps Great Britain will change camps as it becomes less and less Great. If Scotland seceedes, there may be one less nuclear weapon state. But I don’t see the Ban Treaty making inroads with other states possessing nuclear weapons.
    Deterrence alone is extremely dangerous.Deterrence needs reassurance to be safer, and reassurance includes many particulars.
    A world without nuclear weapons would be a better world, but how do we get there? We’ll need more than hortatory compacts. My thinking is that we get to a better place when deterrence is defanged by reassurance and by extending norms of non-battlefield use and the absence of testing.
    Best wishes,