Michael KreponIs Arms Control Dead (Again)?

David Hoffman tapped a thoughtful piece, “Is Nuclear Arms Control Dead?” that appears on Foreign Policy’s website. Nuclear arms control has been declared dead on many occasions, including when the Soviet Union broke a nearly three-year-long moratorium on atmospheric tests in 1961, when it invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and when the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was handed over as booty to a boarding party of ideologues accompanying the incoming Reagan administration. Heck, nuclear arms control died several times in first Reagan Administration alone, when the President endorsed one-sided negotiating proposals to reduce strategic arms and to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear forces. More nails were then driven into the coffin with the unveiling of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Some of my favorite premature obituaries of arms control can be found in an earlier post, Death and Resurrection (12/17/09).

This business of arms control just won’t go away. It gets banished for a time inside the cupboard, but still finds its way to the dining room table. The reason is fairly straightforward: Presidents aren’t doing their job properly if they don’t reduce nuclear dangers. When those dangers flare, arms control makes a comeback.

Arms control can take many forms, and the form that arms controllers like best is treaties. Treaties are particularly hard to do when (a) Democratic Presidents negotiate them and seek the Senate’s consent to ratification; (b) partisanship prevails on Capitol Hill and Republicans equate treaties with national enfeeblement; (c) more than 50 states are involved in the negotiations; and (d) the entry-into-force provision plays out like a James Bond movie with the UN Secretary General playing the role of 007.

For reasons that remain puzzling to me, the climate-change community seeks to emulate – nay, pursue even more difficult feats than – the arms control community. The NPT, BWC, and CWC were simple matters compared to entry into force of the Kyoto Treaty or its hoped-for replacement. If I knew the first thing about the Doha Round, I’d probably throw this into the mix, as well.

When international politics, domestic partisanship and procedure trap treaties, substance becomes more important than form. As readers of these posts know, I am partial to codes of conduct and norm-building exercises, especially when the deck is stacked against treaties. Treaties establish or strengthen norms in the most formal way, but when you don’t own a tuxedo, a white tie and tails, a suit or sports jacket will have to do. Why wait for treaties when unilateral action and reciprocal steps among the biggest stakeholders do not harm and could advance national security? This logic applies to climate change as much as to arms control.

Rather than being dead, nuclear arms control turns out to be alive and well, at least compared to efforts to reverse climate change. Both pursuits are costly at the outset. Nuclear arms control and reduction treaties are accompanied with pricey “safeguards” provided to ease Congressional concerns. Environmental protection is also very costly at the outset – at least until your population is overcome with respiratory disease and cancer, and your cities, farmlands and coasts are hammered by extreme weather. Then, environmental protection, like nuclear arms control, seems like a reasonable global insurance policy.


  1. Bradley Laing (History)

    Prof Myers says it appears the North will use highly enriched uranium if a third nuclear test does happen.

    “Two tests in 2006 and 2009 were using plutonium and they didn’t really do very well. They kind of fizzled out, which didn’t prevent the North Korean government from touting them at home as big triumphs, but I think this time, and the general consensus among nuclear experts, is that the North Koreans are going to try to use highly enriched uranium,” he said.


    —If they do use Uranium, will it be obvious?

    • Magpie (History)

      Welllll, I don’t think it’s completely cut-and-dried that the previous tests were fizzles, and it’s even harder to be certain that they couldn’t have learned from that. They ‘aint dumb.

      But if it is an HEU test, as I said on another thread here, I think the interesting question is whether they’re testing something like the fabled Iranian R-265, loaded with NK HEU. It seems a logical point of cooperation for the two countries, and it’s good timing if there are Iranians considering a quick dash to break-out at home. It would also justify (require, even) a weapons test, unlike a simpler sort of HEU weapon NK could be pretty stupendously confident in anyway (and hence not need to test). They do time things politically, no doubt, but I can’t see them doing a test purely for effect, which won’t tell them much of anything. Doesn’t seem their style.

      …so I still reckon there’s a decent chance it’ll be Pu. Why come off two “failed” tests of Pu devices and go to “simpler” HEU, unless it’s to test the sort of miniaturisation that’s more complicated, but now we’re uncertain again, like a third Pu test would be so why do we think it won’t be Pu? …and round and round the circular argument goes.

      Either course (a third Pu test, or a relatively advanced HEU device) is completely possible, IMO.

  2. Bradley Laing (History)

    —Why do I wish this guy had been given a better job somewhere, doing something else?


    ‘Missile man’ cried after successful launch from under sea

    Written by Pallava Bagla | Updated: January 28, 2013 00:36 IST

    When NDTV caught up with him seconds after the launch was declared successful, Mr Chakrabarty’s eyes had welled up. On being asked, he said, “this is my swan song and these are tears of joy and ecstasy. The launch could not have been better than this.”

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    Mr Chakrabarty is extremely well loved and respected by his young team of scientists who celebrated Sunday’s success by hoisting him up on their shoulders and dancing around.

    Scientists are usually very well composed, but here they let their emotions loose and danced on the deck of the ship. They even cut a large cake; sweets were shared with great gusto. Mr Chakrabarty says he has learnt the art of missile making by the hands of India’s original missile man, former President APJ Abdul Kalam. He also saluted the leadership and team spirit which was instilled in the missile complex of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) by Mr Kalam. Mr Chakrabarty says he feels the next big challenge would be to test the missile when it is incorporated on INS Arihant in the next few months. And he hopes that the continuous success will lead to an early deployment of the weapons system.

  3. archjr (History)


    To my mind, the most important arms control agreement of the last three decades was the INF treaty. When did that happen? Substance became more important than form, and it happened in an administration that, by your casually cast-about labels, should have rejected it.

  4. Daryl Kimball (History)


    Very nice essay… we’ve certainly heard the suggestion during the occasional “down times” that the Arms Control Association should change its name, but for the reasons you outline and a few others, we have not …

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      How about the “Arms Control and Disarmament Association”?

  5. Jonah Speaks (History)

    “Treaties are particularly hard to do when … (c) more than 50 states are involved in the negotiations”

    I do not believe that it is inherently more difficult to negotiate multilateral treaties, but for the too-often-used unanimity rule or consensus requirement in international negotiations. A different rule, such as a simple majority to put an item on the agenda, and a two-thirds majority to put a treaty text up for ratification and signature, might do wonders to get more multi-national treaties started. An example of work totally not getting done, due to the unanimity rule, is one nation preventing even discussion of a fissile materials cut-off treaty.

    • Magpie (History)

      Well, a lot of treaties are such that you only want to do it if everyone is going to do it. If even one party says “well we’re never going to agree to X”, then talking about X is genuinely a waste of time. This is especially true for stuff like arms control: you only need those weapons because they have THOSE weapons, so you can’t get rid of yours unless they get rid of theirs. And they have their weapons NOT ONLY because you have your weapons, but also so that the right people in their country will get a bucket of money dumped on them and other people will get lots of votes. Now what?

      Environmental action is worse. You get everyone shuffling about and whining that they won’t do anything until EVERYONE does something, and are YOU doing anything? No, me neither, what about you? Oh, you would? But not if I don’t. And they’re not, I think. So I’m not. Oh, and they’re not because you’re not? But they would if he did, and he won’t because she won’t? Wait, where were we again? Bugger it, let’s all go home and hope no-one notices that we didn’t do anything.

      No-one wants to be the person who comes home and has the “other side” bleat that they got a sucker deal. Suckers don’t get votes. “WHAT??? We’re going to do something but THEY aren’t?” So even if you genuinely want to agree to X, sometimes you can’t *in a negotiation* because your political enemies will immediately find someone who didn’t, or some sub-sub-sub clause where you “lost”, or where someone else “won”, and you look like a gumby who got mugged. A mugmy.

      The threat of becoming a mugmy can mean that your career genuinely depends on “winning” in the wording of something that no-one will ever care about 30 seconds after ratification.

      So as Michael was saying, sometimes the only genuine way forward is unilateral actions. Change the rhetoric at home to justify your course of action without the negotiating positions of others getting in the way – then you can pick up some moral high ground while framing the argument as national-interest / global leadership. The other side is then free to do the same at their house, names reversed. No-one’s opponents get to pull out the balance and decide their guys were idiots, because there’s no direct comparison to make.

      Win for everyone.

    • krepon (History)

      Suggest you copyright “mugmy.”

  6. archjr (History)

    Apologies for the earlier snarky comment. I guess what I was disagreeably agreeing with was the notion that arms control isn’t dead, and the point I was making was that despite predictions to the contrary, the Reaganites were the ones who took the most significant step towards reducing the nuclear threat in Europe. That European job, of course, is not done, and I, for one, would like to see a bit more elbow-grease applied to that problem by the guys that run the show these days. Maybe we’ll get a promising alignment of the political planets someday soon, and move forward.
    I have never been, nor am, a partisan (especially in today’s environment!) but think the use of partisan labels in your otherwise excellent post is misplaced. Some of those guys in Reagan’s ACDA really took their jobs seriously, and a number of Reagan-era officials have become Global-Zero aficionados. As you well know, ACDA’s true emasculation began in the Clinton Administration when it was moved to State. The slasher movie occurred under Bush 43, as you also well know, but in my view the very idea of ACDA was so beat-up that, by the time the new folks got ahold of it, it had already died a bureaucratic death.
    We got a great speech out of the President at the beginning of his first term. Slanging matches have pretty much won the day since then, and we are losing some sensible people on the Republican side of the aisle. But hope springs eternal, which I think is the spirit behind your post, one I share.
    But I think the arms control balance sheet is not well-defined by a partisan lens. I would be interested in your further views on this subject.

    • krepon (History)


      My apologies for misplacing your comment and not posting it earlier.

      The subtitle of my last book is “The Ironies of Living with the Bomb.” One, among many, was that the hardliners within the Reagan administration, and the President himself, broke the back of the nuclear arms race — in partnership, of course, with Mikhail Gorbachev.

      The Reagan administration was a feuding mass of contradictions. Gene Rostow, who became head of ACDA, was a man of depth and breadth. Some of the folks who came with him were not. Their job, as they saw it, was to clean house (me included), break some china and prevent agreements from happening.

      The dissension within the administration was a fair reflection of the President’s passions. Ronald Reagan hated Communism, hated the Bomb, and loved SDI in equal measure. He was comfortable with this strange brew, but it confounded most of us.

      It was only in the second administration, after extended bureaucratic combat that led to some resignations and the marginalization of other mischief makers, deal making became possible. The enormity of these deals — the INF Treaty being the most astounding — are testament to the bigness of Reagan and Gorbachev. Also to the tenacity of Secretary Shultz and Ambassador Nitze.

      How rare is it to have not one, but two risk-taking leaders who are not in thrall to the Bomb in the White House and the Kremlin? This has happened once in my lifetime, with Reagan and Gorbachev. The results were monumental. We’re still living off the proceeds.

      When Ronald Reagan became president, I was appalled. When he left office, I was greatly in his debt. Irony abounds.


  7. Drew (History)

    Speak of the devil:


    Looks like more arms control negotiations could be in the offing.

  8. Richard (History)

    More of a question than a snarky refute:

    The unilateral decision not to reprocess nuclear fuel appears to have had practically zero impact regarding normative behavior. It was a unilateral failure of the suggested policy, and crippled organizations that had invested billions (in ancient dollars of yore), arguably so much so it killed nuclear power in the US.

    Not to say we should keep arms-building as an industry, but are there good examples of unilateral actions that have really generated a lot of benefit?

    • krepon (History)


      A lot more thinking and analysis is required on norm-building. The existing literature is pretty scant, especially compared to what’s available on negotiations and formalized arms control. This can be a rich topic for term papers, graduate study and dissertations.

      One hypothesis worth considering: If you are one of say, a half-dozen key actors, and no-one follows your “lead,” don’t expect to engage in norm building. This would apply to your example of reprocessing. And yet, this initiative might still make sense — for you. In addition, it can’t hurt with respect to norm-building, even if it doesn’t help.

      Another hypothesis: If you are one of just a few actors, and the action in question poses public health hazards and is widely unpopular, then your initiative might just help build a norm — even if the norm gets broken along the way. An example of this would be the cessation of atmospheric testing.


  9. Jens (History)

    “Why wait for treaties when unilateral action and reciprocal steps among the biggest stakeholders do not harm and could advance national security? This logic applies to climate change as much as to arms control.”

    Time to take a look at Amitai Etzioni and his Gradualism