Michael KreponArms Control With and Without Agreements

Ken Adelman loves Shakespeare. The Reagan administration thought that the right stage for him would be the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, after its first appointee as Director, Eugene Rostow, became a bit too obstreperous. Rostow was a heavy hitter. Before coming to ACDA, he was Chairman of the Committee on the Present Danger, which beat the drums about the Soviet threat and the follies of arms control. Ken was an unknown quantity. He was tapped from the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, where he happily punctured diplomatic hot air balloons and, I suspect, made sufficient time for Broadway plays. We used to car-pool our kids to Sunday school, without talking shop.

Feathers flew when Ken’s playful nature parachuted into the deadly serious world of arms control. He couldn’t resist a good quip, and none came back to haunt him more than predicting that George W. Bush’s military foray into Iraq would be a “cakewalk.” I recommend Ken’s irreverent memoir of the Reagan administration’s arms control diplomacy, The Deadly Universal Embrace (1989), as an antidote to hagiographic treatments.

In my view, the most valuable piece of writing Ken ever did was “Arms Control With and Without Agreements,” which appeared in the Winter 1984/85 issue of Foreign Affairs, just before U.S.-Soviet negotiations were about regain a pulse.

As I recall, Ken got in some hot water for this piece because of its political incorrectness. At a time when the Reagan administration was taking considerable flak that its one-sided negotiating proposals were designed to fail at the negotiating table, Ken was suggesting that treaties weren’t the be-all and end-all of nuclear diplomacy.

Here are the key passages:

Another approach [to formal accords], and to me the most promising of innovative thoughts, is arms control through individual but (where possible) parallel policies: i.e., arms control without agreements (treaties, in particular). In simple terms, each side would take measures which enhance strategic stability and reduce nuclear weapons in consultation with each other – but not necessarily in a formalized, signed agreement. Those measures could be enunciated in national policies and could be confirmed in exchanges, ideally after some understandings or at least discussions with the Soviets. Not all aspects of arms control could or should be so fashioned. But some areas may benefit from less emphasis on the formal process – whether negotiations are on or off, whether one side puts forward a new proposal or another – and far more on the results – whether there is greater stability and fewer nuclear weapons on either or both sides. If the Soviets are willing, we can attain these results together in evolving parallel policies.

Adopting this approach of individual, parallel restraint could help avoid endless problems over what programs to exclude, which to include, and how to verify them. The focus should be on areas or strategic systems of greatest military importance. Arms control without agreements could be easier to discuss with the Soviets and quicker to yield concrete results. Being less formal, such arrangements could be more easily modified if circumstances change than could legally binding treaties.

A decade-long legal framework for U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reductions is now in place. Moscow has indicated it plans to include many neuralgic issues in follow-on treaty negotiations. The Senate demands talks with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons which, if translated into treaty text, could take a very long time. The entry-into-force provision of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is the worst ever negotiated. A fissile material cutoff treaty is a long way off. China is far from ready to enter into treaties that impinge on its strategic modernization programs. The military activities of major powers in space could become far more worrisome over the next decade. Sounds like a promising time to consider useful, stabilizing measures that do not take the form of treaties.


  1. FSB (History)

    Neuralgic? Russia?

    Pray tell?

    I do agree with “a promising time to consider useful, stabilizing measures that do not take the form of treaties.”

    The first stabilizing measure would be for the US to admit there is no point (nor functionality) to its BMD plans and that it is unilaterally withdrawing it.

    Since fiscal conservatives are running amok in DC, this wasteful, pork-barrel, destabilizing program should be the first under the scalpel.

    And it would not need a treaty.

    • Anon (History)

      Thank you sir!

      Yes: fiscal conservatives — prove your stripes and cancel missile defense[sic].

      And I agree Russia is not being neuralgic — we are.

      Neuralgic and irrational. And wasteful.

    • JP (History)

      Fiscal conservatives are running amok in DC? When did that happen? A $3.7 trillion budget and a budget deficit of $1.6 trillion is a sign that the fiscal conservatives are in control? LOL, I’d hate to see what the budget deficit would look like if the deficit hawks weren’t fiercely restraining it!

    • FSB (History)

      I agree. They need to restrain in more…by, eg., cutting missile defense.

    • JP (History)

      Well, let’s see. MDA’s budget request for Ground Based Midcourse Defense is $1.346B in FY 2011. That’s a whopping 0.24% of the defense budget, and 0.035% of the total budget. Yup, eliminating national missile defense is the KEY to fiscal discipline! Deleting that one line item will put us right back in the black!

    • FSB (History)

      Whoopee! Deleting any ONE program will likely not cut the budget by half.

      Missile defense is probably one of the biggest single things that could and should be eliminated.

      Unless you like waste.


    • Nah (History)

      “Missile defense is probably one of the biggest single things that could and should be eliminated.”

      Well, let’s see, the GAO just found $100B in duplicative and wasteful programs (GMD was not one of them, BTW), including $5B a year in direct payments to large, successful farmers, so I’d say $1.3B for GMD is not even close to the biggest single problem. Heck, even CAGW doesn’t think GMD is DODs most wasteful program, let alone the Federal government’s most wasteful program.

  2. Scott Monje (History)

    Wishful thinking aside, just what is it that makes this stabilizing? Gorbachev and the first George Bush did exactly this–as an emergency response to an emergency situation–with tactical nuclear weapons in 1991. The resulting situation is precisely what the Republicans in Congress are now denouncing, saying that we don’t know what the Russians have, where they have them, or what they are doing with them. A stabilizing arrangement would have to be credibly “self-verifying,” or verifiable without cooperation, with neither side able to undermine or interfere with that verification. Any reliance on trust or enlightened self-interest will disintegrate the next time relations go south or someone with little knowledge of foreign affairs needs an issue for an electoral campaign. (Warning: I may have gotten out of the wrong side of the bed today.)

  3. krepon (History)

    PUH-LEEZE people: Enough about BMD. We’re not on FOX News here on ACW.com. The more you repeat yorself, the more readership you lose.

    • FSB (History)

      With respect, MK, your posts invite such responses since missile defense is integral to them. You are talking about treaties etc. — well, we just signed New START and it is likely going to implode in the next 18 months BECAUSE of the irrational preoccupation with a unworkable system. An expensive system.

      “Either we agree to certain principles with NATO, or we fail to agree, and then in the future we are forced to adopt an entire series of unpleasant decisions concerning the deployment of an offensive nuclear missile group…”

      – President Medvedev

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Puh-leeze, Michael. Not nearly enough is said about BMD, about what a fraud the program is known to be, about what a strategic disaster it is for national and international security. Not nearly enough is said, and letting it go unsaid allows the program to plow ahead to mild applause. Not nearly enough is said to bring it to the reckoning and the stop it must be brought to.

      I appreciate your tolerance if you disagree, but I’m having a hard time figuring out if you do disagree, since you do not defend BMD in any substantive way. You can’t just wish it away or sweep it under the rug. In the more than two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it Reagan’s obviously delusional SDI, the BMD fire has been allowed to smolder and repeatedly flare up. It is now a full blaze again, threatening to consume any further chances for meaningful space or nuclear arms control. Ignoring it isn’t working.

  4. David Clark (History)

    I for one appreciate Mr. Krepon’s guidance for future discussion. I’m personally sympathetic to the anti-BMD position, but the cause is not served by those commentators who use every new blog post, regardless of topic, as an opportunity to repeat the same points. I’d like to hear fresh voices and perspectives – the ownership of the comment section by a handful of posters (and their alternate accounts) is counterproductive.

  5. Anon (History)

    Why not do a post on whether MD is good or bad for America and get it over with?

    I agree with Mark that this is the MOST important issue before the Arms Control community and they pretend like they see no evil.

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