Michael KreponHedley Bull

Hedley Bull is probably the least well-known founding father of the theory of modern arms control. He’s not very well known because he toiled under three considerable disadvantages. First, he was an Australian based in the United Kingdom, when the primary action was in the United States. Second, his important book, The Control of the Arms Race: Disarmament and Arms Control in the Missile Age (1961), suffered by comparison to Thomas Schelling and Mort Halperin’s Strategy and Arms Control, which was published around the same time. And third, Bull was a dense prose stylist. While Strategy and Arms Control was a model of clarity and concision, Bull made far greater demands of his readers, writing rebuttals before coming around to his conclusions.

The Control of the Arms Race was written under the auspices of the Institute of Strategic Studies, which convened a study group for Bull’s benefit, including among its members Alaistair Buchan, Anthony Buzzard, Philip Noel-Baker, Thomas Schelling, and Albert Wohlstetter. (The ISS subsequently added the word “International” to its masthead).

Bull defined arms control as “restraint internationally exercised upon armaments policy, whether in respect of the level of armaments, their character, deployment or use.” Here are some of Bull’s conclusions, which echo those of Schelling and Halperin:

In general, arms races arise as the result of political conflicts, are kept alive by them, and subside with them….

We cannot expect that a system of arms control will be brought into operation, nor that, if it is, it will persist, unless certain political conditions are fulfilled….

Arms control does not provide a technique of insulating a military situation from the future will of states to change it: it cannot bind, not settle in advance, the future course of politics. There are no technical means of excluding the political factor….

If armaments do not of themselves produce war, certain kinds or levels or deployments of armaments may be more likely to give rise to the decision to go to war than others. If arms races do not necessarily lead to war, there are directions they can take which undermine security against it.


  1. @FHeisbourg (History)

    Dear Michael,

    Imagine my pleasure this morning, on my side of the Pond, when I read your piece on Hedley Bull (and the ISS as it was then known), which is spot-on.
    Intellectually and politically, even those who’ve never heard his name, owe him more than they may know. HB was among those who framed the terms of the strategic confrontation during the depths of the Cold War in a way which helped defuse the nuclear standoff and channel it into the tedious and inconclusive process known as arms control. The exciting and decisive alternative of a nuclear world war was mercifully avoided.

    François Heisbourg, Chairman, IISS

  2. jeannick (History)

    Certainly this is a truism that any treaty is only as good as the intent behind it.

    still they provide some ballast in international relations since they engage into a course .

    any deviation from the treaty can thus demonstrate a change of ultimate intent or an affirmation of such a perception

  3. MarkoB (History)

    Could there be a Chicken or Egg problem at play? What came first? The theory of arms control or a desire to engage in arms control subsequently justified by theory?

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    One of the most famous arms races was the pre WW-I Naval Arms race between Germany and Great Britian.

    “If armaments do not of themselves produce war, certain kinds or levels or deployments of armaments may be more likely to give rise to the decision to go to war than others.”

    —Did the Soviets reject that idea that “deployments of armaments” could give rise to the decisions to go to war?
    On the grounds that the pre WW-I arms race was just a conflict between capitalists, and the arms race itself had nothing to do with starting WW-I?

  5. Nicola Horsburgh (History)

    Wonderful post, thank you. I sense it depends where one is drawing a point of reference. I am based in the UK and Hedley Bull’s work has been massively influential in my thinking on nuclear matters, even more than Thomas Schelling and Morton Halperin, not to diminish the huge contribution of the latter two to the field, of course.

    I find Bull’s work captivating for a number of reasons. In his nuclear writings, always so nuanced, the struggle of competing ideas and seemingly illogical-logics underpinning global nuclear politics are beautifully laid-out. Perhaps more importantly, like Brodie before him, Bull placed the nuclear problem in the context of wider, and more enduring, global conundrums: great power relations, order, justice and responsibility. As an example of this, for Bull’s masterpiece, The Anarchical Society, one needs to step outside the nuclear field and enter the rather tricky terrain of International Relations theory.

    As a side note: Robert Ayson, who wrote a superb book on Thomas Schelling, is currently writing a book on Hedley Bull.

  6. Alex (History)

    Anarchical Society…rules?

  7. Robert Ayson (History)

    After Nicola’s very kind comments I hope people don’t mind me barging in on the conversation. Michael, you are absolutely right, people do need to pay more attention to Hedley Bull’s arms control thinking (and his work more broadly on strategic issues). One other overshadowing factor is the enormous success of his main IR book, The Anarchical Society, (1977) but as I argue in my book which Palgrave Macmillan will publish later this year, you can’t understanding Bull on international relations without understanding first Bull on arms control. In fact the most powerful examples of a modern international society for Bull come from the management of nuclear weapons. On Bull and Schelling, an early comparison before I started writing the new book can be read at
    http://epress.anu.edu.au/sdsc/hedley/mobile_devices/ch05.html The book ,by the way, includes some comments by Schelling himself on the importance of Hedley Bull’s work.

  8. Jens (History)

    Nice reminder on Bull’s work. He, like Schelling and Halperin, pointed to the possibility that arms control could be unilateral and more informal. A point that is often overlooked but which deserves attention.


    @Mr. Ayson: I am looking forward reading your book.