James ActonConference on Disarmament

Now that the administrative joys of the start of term have begun to subside I have time start to posting again…

Actually, my first full day back was an enjoyable one as I attended a conference organised by Dan Plesch and Poul Erik Christiansen of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. (Dan is perhaps best known as author of The Beauty Queen’s Guide to World Peace. I think he should give me 10% of any sales resulting from thus plug!) Anyway, the purpose of the conference, Disarmament and Globalisation, was to mark the start of a research project of the same name. Dan (rightly in my opinion) believes the academic community is not paying enough attention to disarmament as an intellectual discipline—this is his part of the solution.

Particular highlights for me were talks by Tom Sauer and David Mutimer. Tom’s talk, Nuclear Weapons Policy under the Clinton Administration: An Opportunity Missed, examined how Les Aspin and Ash Carter’s attempts to transform America’s nuclear posture (by scrapping ICBMs, for instance) were derailed by hostility from below and a lack of support from above. (I couldn’t find an online article from Tom on the subject but this makes broadly the same point). The talk was salient given most of the Democratic candidates are talking about more-or-less significantly transforming the US arsenal. Tom’s message: it won’t be easy.

David, on the other hand, gave a thought provoking but untitled talk which I will somewhat cheekily dub Why the left should dislike arms control. His point (in part) is that the nature of arms control agreements is both shaped by the strategic environment and helps to shape it. He argues that US-Russian bilateral agreements, in particular, can be self-serving in that they help to perpetuate the nuclear primacy of those two nations. I don’t entirely agree with him but he raises some important points and it left me pondering the following: Now the Cold War is over, what is arms control for? More on that shortly.


  1. Andy Grotto (History)

    Hi James, you should check out Janne Nolan’s 1999 book “An Elusive Consensus.” [http://www.brookings.edu/press/Books/1999/elusive_consensus.aspx]

    It’s the definitive analysis on the ’93-94 NPR, in my view.

  2. Paul Guinnessy (History)

    We’ll be launching a web site later this week that will be looking at policy questions of interest to the science community that we’ve asked the presidential candidates. The link is http://blogs.physicstoday.org/politics08

    We’ll be updating the web site throughout the year as more information becomes available (and inviting members of the community to write some analysis of the candidates positions on nuclear weapons, energy etc…). Please feel free to add your own comments to the candidates positions if you have any.

  3. MarkoB (History)

    I’m as left as they come but I don’t agree with this whole idea of “moving beyond arms control” either. Fact is that we are witnessing some major qualitative strategic advances that will prove de-stabilising (weaponisation of space etc). We can be pure but that won’t change matters much. We do what is feasible and I don’t think that wholesale disarmament, much as I would like to see it happen, is. Arms control is for strategic stability, co-operative security and constraining the domestic sources of high technology weaponry. The end of the cold war hasn’t changed any of that.

    At any rate absurdities such as the “problematique” of global security that we see coming from “critical security studies” is actually an intellectual and policy regression. I don’t see what fashionable absurdities such as Foucaltian theory and so on have to do with things. I think arms control in the context of co-operative security would make the world a much better place…is general and complete disarmament ideally better than arms control? Sure it is but despite the fondness that we see in the “critical” security literature to place such terms as reality in quotation marks I must insist on “reality” nonetheless.

    Only the impotent can afford to be pure.

  4. CKR (History)

    What is arms control for? MarkoB nicely addressed this.

    Asking questions like this is the brainless kind of rhetoric (Foucaultian? Maybe) that gives us the term “Very Special People,” which originated last year when some bloggers noticed that the Foreign Policy Community can really be quite foolish.

    Is it too naive and not sufficiently academic to suggest that the end of the Cold War might have allowed movement toward abolition of nuclear weapons? Or bringing in the outlier states of India, Israel and Pakistan? Or multilateral reductions in delivery vehicles? Could any or all of this have been called arms control? Or do we need a Post-Cold-War term? Or are we now moving into the Post-Post-Cold War?

  5. James (History)

    I don’t think it’s a stupid question, but the sort of philosophical starting point that asks, quite sensibly, what is our desired end state?

    I would argue that the NPT itself is intended to perpetuate the nuclear primacy of the Big Five and that this will lead to increasing skepticism and resistance from the non-nuclear states in the increasingly multipolar world.

    One of the key tenets of “arms control” has always been to manage arms races rather than prevent them. The negotiations have often been part of a policy of “pursuing war by other means.” Negotiators have been ordered to protect technologies in which their country has a lead while restricting weapons that pose a particular threat to them. Thus did Britain attempt to ban submarines and the Soviet Union the ABM. Another feature in arms control was that of setting limits that were higher than current inventories. Going all the way back to the Washington Treaty, cuts were made in “planned” weapons, not actual ones. Only in the last twenty years has serious effort been made to actually outlaw weapons or reduce stockpiles.

    So I ask the question: does “arms control” only mean managing the deployment of space weapons so that no nation has total dominance, or does it mean preventing the militarization of space entirely? Fiddling around with the rules of the race does have value, but so does cancelling the race entirely.

  6. Daryl Kimball (History)

    Hmmm. Is their a future for arms control? From time to time at the Arms Control Association, we stop one another in the hallway and ask ourselves: why in the heck are we doing this? (Really.) It’s a good question and one that we need to keep asking, but the answer is obvious. It is “yes.”

    The next and more important question is how do you make sure that arms control is effective and useful. As with anything whether its Mine Ban Treaty, the Threshold Test Ban, the NSG, or the SORT agreement(or diplomacy, punk rock, architecture, food, etc.) things can be done very well, very poorly, and all things in between.

    In the final analysis, good arms control, by limiting dangerous weapons in transparent ways, reduces (maybe even eliminates) weapons dangers, creates predictability and confidence, and reduces the likelihood of violence and conflict. At its best, it limits/prohibits dangerous technological developments before they are deployed and is applied universally.

    Historically, it often falls short because the big militarized powers won’t/don’t accede to limits or prohibitions until they decide they no longer need the weapons, but even then arms control can prevent the reemergence of the controlled weapons.

    As far as I am concerned, arms control is not the be all and end all, but we’d be a hell of a lot worse off “without it.”

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