Michael KreponDeath and Resurrection

Many have declared the practice of nuclear arms control to be dead or dying. This was especially true after the Carter administration pulled the plug on SALT II in 1979. Here’s a sampler:

Arms control has essentially failed. Three decades of U.S.-Soviet negotiations to limit arms competition have done little more than to codify the arms race.

— Les Gelb, 1979

A very strong case can be made that we’ve come to the end of the road with traditional arms control agreements.

— Zbigniew Brzezinski, 1984

I think New York City is essentially ungovernable because of its size, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t keep trying and fill up the potholes that we find. I don’t think broad, verifiable arms control agreements are “do-able,” but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do useful things at the margins.

— Helmut Sonnenfeldt, 1984

Ongoing technological change makes the likelihood of meaningful arms control agreements involving only offensive strategic arms even less likely than in the past.”

— The Heritage Foundation, 1985

In 1987, Albert Carnesale and Richard Haass published an edited volume, Superpower Arms Control: Setting the Record Straight. These wise men found slim pickings:

What is most striking about the arms control experience surveyed here is what it did not do. Those who hoped arms control would bring about major reductions in existing or planned inventories or slow the introduction of new and more capable technologies have little grounds for satisfaction. Nor do those who looked to arms control as a means of constraining the emergence of a large, modern Soviet arsenal capable of destroying a significant proportion of U.S. strategic retaliatory forces… What emerges above all is the modesty of what arms control has wrought. Expectations, for better or worse, for the most part have not been realized… If the history reveals anything, it is that arms control has proved neither as promising as some had hoped nor as dangerous as others had feared.

Later that year, the INF Treaty abolishing three rungs of the escalation ladder was finalized. As Paul Warnke used to say, rumors of the death of arms control are always premature; the more some succeed in killing the enterprise, the more others will be obliged to reinvent it.

To those ACW readers who celebrate holidays this season, and to those who do not: May peace be upon you.


  1. anon

    It was neither dead nor dying. It was simply a childish wish of world peace.

  2. RAJ47

    A merry Christmas and a very Happy and Prosperous New Year 2010!!!

  3. archjr (History)

    Here’s a less academic observation from a long-time Washington friend of mine, who took up a job with Sen. Russell at the advent of the ABM Treaty, on the occasion of its impending demise in 2002:

    “When I got here, it was all about ABMs, and we’re debating the same thing all over again. There are no new ideas in Washington, just reruns.”

    Let’s hope he is wrong.

  4. Yale Simkin (History)

    An interesting chart from the horror years of Ronald Raygun.

  5. Anonone

    It’s inert but it creates jobs for some.

  6. bradley laing (History)

    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, December 19, 2009

    President Obama said Friday the United States and Russia are “quite close” to reaching an agreement that would cut their nuclear stockpiles and allow the world’s atomic giants to keep monitoring each other’s arsenals. But they are unlikely to meet their goal of getting an accord by year’s end.

    The new pact would be a successor to the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which helped maintain stability between the countries for nearly two decades before expiring Dec. 5. Obama hopes the new accord will show the world the United States is serious about arms control, as it pushes for tougher action against such countries as Iran, which may be seeking their own nuclear weapons.

  7. bradley laing (History)

    —from “The Moscow Times.”

    18 December 2009
    Combined Reports
    Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged U.S. officials on Thursday to accept deeper cuts and less intrusive verification measures in a nuclear weapons treaty that the two countries are negotiating.

    Lavrov said disagreements over such issues over the past few days had slowed efforts to reach a deal, and he agreed with the White House’s assessment that Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev are not expected to sign a nuclear weapons treaty when they travel to Copenhagen this week.

    However, Lavrov also agreed with the White House that the United States and Russia continue to make progress on negotiations for a successor to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as START I, and said he hoped an agreement would be reached soon.

  8. anonone

    “An interesting chart from the horror years of Ronald Raygun.”

    I wouldn’t say it’s “interesting” but it is humorous. It does not add in all the guns & bullets that far exceed the world’s population.
    Kind of like that one male ejaculation that can impregnate all the females in the world. It’s more of a distribution problem than a threat.

  9. Matt Hoey (History)

    The point about technical change stands out, though I do not believe it is getting as much attention as it should. Nuclear disarmament efforts and placing genies back in bottles is far trickier than preventing their escape in the first place. The rapid evolution of emerging dual-use technologies is going to yield new weapons and far sooner (IMHO) than some in the arms community think. At the moment there is a tremendous opportunity to address these destructive new technologies before they manifest themselves on the battlefield. There can be no doubt that this opportunity will not be available for very long. Pardon the self promotion but a piece that I recently wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists serves as a good case study: http://thebulletin.metapress.com/content/f7u36363444757v8/

    Happy Holidays to everyone!