James ActonWhat is arms control for?

I’m tickled pink that my brief comment about the purpose of arms control in a recent post has already provoked debate. I think some of you are expecting me to argue to that, now the Cold War has ended, arms control serves no useful purpose. Well, that’s not what I’m going to say. I think it would be very foolhardy to scrap those agreements we have at the moment for an as-yet-undetermined alterative. My argument is that, in today’s world, arms control could serve a number of different, useful purposes—but it can’t serve them all at once. Consequently, there is a need for the arms control community and governments—particularly governments—to try and come to a unified sense of what they want arms control to do.

Forgive me if I start with a quick and somewhat simplified history. During the Cold War arms control served two primary purposes (and here I restrict myself to nuclear arms control). First, it was driven by finance ministers seeking to reduce the costs of the arms race. Second, and most importantly, it was about ensuring—in a very technical sense—strategic stability. That is making sure that both the US or Soviet Union were deterred from a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the certainty of a devastating counter strike. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (RIP), for instance, was premised on the assumption that the ability to defend against a counter strike might embolden an aggressor to strike first. Not everyone agreed with arms control being used in this ‘limited’ way. Parts of the disarmament lobby in particular felt very uncomfortable that mutual assured destruction was essentially being enshrined with treaties. But arms controllers generally had a pretty clear sense of what they were trying to do.

It seems to me that there is no longer such a clear sense of what arms control is for. I can think of various possibilities:

  • Maintaining strategic stability
  • Preventing the re-emergence of a new nuclear arms race
  • Saving money
  • Building trust between states in respect of their intentions for their nuclear weapons
  • Building trust between states more generally
  • Promoting disarmament by reducing weapon numbers significantly

Each of these is a laudable and important goal—I’m just not sure arms control can do all of them at once.

There are, for instance, tensions between the first goal (maintaining stability) and the last (promoting disarmament). If you really believe the primary purpose of arms control is to maintain stability, you almost certainly believe that cutting nuclear weapon numbers rapidly is dangerous. It increases the probability (even absent cheating) that at some given moment one side might have many more nuclear weapons than the other—exactly the kind of imbalance that is dangerous according to Cold War arms control theories. You probably also believe bilateral treaties should remain the focus of arms control. On the other hand, if you believe the primary purpose of arms control is disarmament then you presumably want to see large, fast cuts, probably by all states with nuclear weapons.

Another example illustrating this same tension concerns verification arrangements. If you believe stability is where it’s at then you probably want complex warhead counting rules and intrusive verification arrangements to boot. START, for instance, permits US and Russian inspectors to count the number of shrouded re-entry vehicles mounted on ballistic missiles. In contrast, if you believe disarmament should be the driver of arms control then you believe that the purpose of arms control is to convince the rest of the world of the nuclear weapon states’ good intentions. Verification is still important but now it would best be conducted by international inspectors. However, in the short to medium term at least, there seems little prospect of the US and Russia granting international inspectors the kind of intrusive access rights they do for each other’s nationals. Hence, it seems likely that, for the time being, internationally-verified arms control agreements will have to focus on missile and launchers not warheads—something that would seem like a retrograde step to a ‘classical’ Cold War arms controller.

I don’t want to overstate my argument here. I’ve obviously chosen the two objectives from the list that are most in tension. However, I do believe that arms control can’t do everything at once. It’s important to discuss whether stability and disarmament are partly contradictory aims and, if so, which is more important. Given there is a good chance we will see an arms control revival in the next few years, arms controllers need a clear picture of what their priorities should be and which of their objectives might be in tension before they start drafting the next generation of treaties. Only that way can those treaties be as effective as they possibly can.


  1. anon (History)

    Actually, you need to take a step back and ask an even more basic question. What is arms control? Is it formal, formulaic treaties, with detailed definitions, counting rules, and monitoring provisions that guarantee some level of equivance between the participants at the outcome? Or could it be a unilateral, reciprocal process, where each side does what it wants with its own forces, while both sides agree on the direction, and possibly end point of the process, but they do this without formal treaties, definitions, or counting rules, and possibly without equivalance at the end (think the 1991 PNIs)? Or is it something in between, with maybe the cooperative management of force structure and force posture changes. The sides could not only agree on where they are going, but generally agree on how they will get there, even if they don’t use a detailed, formulaic formal treaty.

    Answer me that, then I’ll tell you what I want to achieve with arms control (and my set of possible goals have different names, although I think stability stays on the list, you also have predictability, transparency, and possibly a measure of flexibility.)

  2. J.

    This is a very helpful post. Thanks.

  3. kme

    Although, as you’ve highlighted, they can sometimes be in conflict, I don’t believe that strategic stability and disarmament are contradictory aims.

    Disarmament should be the end goal that arms control works actively towards, and strategic stability should be a condition that is maintained throughout the process. That is, arms control should aim for a series of steps that each move towards disarmament, but each taken in a way that maintains stability in the immediate term.

    Stability is an essential, disarmament is a goal.

  4. Mark Gubrud

    Actually, I don’t see that you have made a cogent argument that all of the purposes you listed cannot be served at the same time.

    Even if there is tension in the sense that an arms control strategy or regime that serves some of them maximally might fail to serve others, this does not imply that a happy medium cannot be found which serves all of these purposes.

    I think we should also ask another question. What are weapons for?

  5. hass (History)

    “Arms Control” is to ensure the continued military superiority of the few over the many, under the guise of maintaining peace and security. Come on, you know this already.

  6. Eugene Miasnikov (History)

    I agree, that strategic stability and disarmament may not contradict to each other.

    The problem is defining “strategic stability” so that all interested parties would accept that definition. History of U.S.- Soviet negotiations shows that there were always disagreements on which systems should be counted as “strategic” or, in other words, effect strategic stability. In particular, the Soviet (and now Russian) side always considered submarine launched cruise missiles as “strategic”, the U.S. side never accepted that. Nevertheless, both sides found a compromise (START Treaty) to reduce their arms.

    At current circumstances, the broadening gap between the Russian and U.S. understandings of strategic stability makes extremely difficult to agree on steps to reduce their arms bilaterally in “old” (START) fashion, though both sides have no intention to build up their forces.

  7. WD (History)

    Two assumptions worth questioning in this part of your post:

    “If you really believe the primary purpose of arms control is to maintain stability, you almost certainly believe that cutting nuclear weapon numbers rapidly is dangerous. It increases the probability (even absent cheating) that at some given moment one side might have many more nuclear weapons than the other—exactly the kind of imbalance that is dangerous according to Cold War arms control theories.”

    First, by ‘rapidly’ you are all but insinuating ‘precipitously’. Why this assumption/insinuation?

    You also refer – correctly – to our reliance on ‘Cold War theories’. This is precisely the problem with the way many people are thinking about strategic stability and deterrence today. It’s no longer a simple two-player game, and many of our old Cold War assumptions about preemption and counter-force don’t hold up so well anymore. I recently heard a great paper about the stability of low numbers, but it was great for 1986, not 2007. This is not at all to imply we do not have to think through many difficult questions, or that some do not remain the same, but many are very different and many which linger have qualitatively shifted.

  8. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    How about doing a summary of this post in Chinese, put it on signs in characters big enough for someone in the audience to read, and parade it with the Olympic athletes during the opening ceremonies?

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