Arms Control and Disarmament

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Arms Control and Disarmament

One of the major efforts to preserve international peace and security in the twenty-first century has been to control or limit the number of weapons and the ways in which weapons can be used. Two different means to achieve this goal have been disarmament and arms control. Disarmament is the reduction of the number of weapons and troops maintained by a state. Arms control refers to treaties made between potential adversaries that reduce the likelihood and scope of war, usually imposing limitations on military capability. Although disarmament always involves the reduction of military forces or weapons, arms control does not. In fact, arms control agreements sometimes allow for the increase of weapons by one or more parties to a treaty.


Arms control developed both in theory and in practice during the Cold War, a period between the late 1940s and 1991 when the two military superpowers, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), dealt with one another from a position of mutual mistrust. Arms control was devised consciously during the postwar period as an alternative to disarmament, which for many had fallen into discredit as a means of reducing the likelihood of war. Germany had been forced to disarm following World War I but became belligerent again during the 1930s, resulting in World War II. Although Germany's weapons had been largely eliminated, the underlying causes of conflict had not. Germany's experience thus illustrated that no simple cause-and-effect relationship existed between the possession of weapons and a tendency to create war.

Following World War II, advocates of arms control as a new approach to limiting hostility between nations emphasized that military weapons and power would continue to remain a part of modern life. It was unrealistic and even dangerous, they felt, for a country to seek complete elimination of weapons, and it would not necessarily reduce the likelihood of war. Whereas disarmament had formerly been seen as an alternative to military strength, arms control was now viewed as an integral part of it. Arms control proponents sought to create a stable balance of power in which the forces that cause states to go to war could be controlled and regulated. The emphasis in arms control is thus upon overall stability rather than elimination of arms, and proponents recognize that an increase in weaponry is sometimes required to preserve a balance of power.

The development of arms control owes a great deal to the existence of Nuclear Weapons as well. By the 1950s, when both the United States and the Soviet Union possessed nuclear weapons, the superpowers became convinced that they could not safely disarm themselves of those weapons. In the absence of guaranteed verification—the process whereby participants in a treaty monitor each other's adherence to the agreement—neither side could disarm without making itself vulnerable to cheating by the other side. The goal of the superpowers and other nations possessing nuclear weapons therefore became not total elimination of those weapons, but control of them so that a stable nuclear deterrent might be maintained. According to the idea of nuclear deterrence, a state possessing nuclear weapons is deterred, or prevented, from using them against another nuclear power because of the threat of retaliation. No state is willing to attempt a first strike because it cannot prevent the other side from striking back. Nuclear deterrence is therefore predicated upon a mutual abhorrence of the destructive power of nuclear weapons. This idea has come to be called mutual assured destruction (MAD).Many experts see deterrence as the ultimate goal of nuclear arms control.

Because many civilians generally assume that arms control and disarmament are the same thing, there has often been public disappointment when treaties have resulted in an increase in the number or power of weapons. An advantage of arms control over disarmament, however, is that even states with a high degree of suspicion or hostility toward each other can still negotiate agreements. Disarmament agreements, on the other hand, require a high degree of trust, and their formation is unlikely between hostile nations.

Arms control is often used as a means to avoid an arms race—a competitive buildup of weapons between two or more powers. Such a race can be costly for both sides, and arms control treaties serve the useful purpose of limiting weapons stockpiles to a level that preserves deterrence while conserving the economic and social resources of a state for other uses.

Modern Arms Control

Although disarmament and arms control agreements were forged prior to World War II (1939–45), the modern arms control effort began in earnest after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. That situation erupted when the United States discovered that the Soviet Union was constructing launch sites for nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, thereby threatening to put nuclear weapons very close to U.S. soil. President john f. kennedy declared a naval blockade of the island, and for two weeks, the United States and the USSR existed in a state of heightened tension. Finally, the USSR and the USSR faced off in what became a white-hot international drama of brinksmanship, each side waiting to see who would blink first. With the United States' promise not to overthrow Fidel Castro's government in Cuba, the Soviets canceled plans to install the missiles. After the crisis, Kennedy wrote to Khrushchev, "I agree with you that we must devote urgent attention to the problem of disarmament. … Perhaps … we can togethermake real progress in this vital field."

Among the earliest arms control treaties were the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), an agreement that prohibited nuclear test explosions in the atmosphere, under water, or in space, which was signed in 1963 by the United States, Britain, and the USSR, and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, a superpower treaty that banned biological weapons and provided for the destruction of existing stockpiles. The 1972 convention was the first and only example, since 1945, of true disarmament of an entire weapons category. Although negotiation on a comprehensive test ban—an agreement that would prohibit all nuclear testing—continued, this solution remained elusive. Nevertheless, in 1974, the superpowers signed the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT), which limits nuclear tests to explosive yields of less than 150 kilotons. (A kiloton represents the explosive force of one thousand tons of TNT). But the TTBT did not prevent the superpowers from developing nuclear warheads (the bomb-carrying segments of a nuclear missile) with power exceeding 150 kilotons; warheads on the Soviet SS-17 missile possess as much as a 3.6-megaton capacity. (A megaton equals 1 million tons of TNT.) In 1976, the superpowers signed the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty (PNET), which banned so-called peaceful nuclear testing.

Numerous arms control agreements have been designed to improve communications between the superpowers. The first of these, coming just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, was the 1963 hot line agreement, setting up a special telegraph line between Moscow and Washington. In 1978, the hot line was updated by a satellite link between the two superpowers. The United States and the USSR also sought to create protocols designed to prevent an accidental nuclear war. This effort led to the 1971 agreement, Measures to Reduce the Risk of Outbreak of Nuclear War, which required advance warning for any missile tests and immediate notification of any accidents or missile warning alerts.

One highly celebrated arms control agreement is the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or Non-Proliferation Treaty, designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries. The agreement involves well over one hundred states. Under it, countries not possessing nuclear weapons give up their right to acquire such weapons, and countries with nuclear weapons waive their rights to export nuclear weapons technology to countries lacking that technology.

Another class of arms control treaties seeks to ban weapons from as-yet-unmilitarized areas. These include the 1959 antarctic treaty, which prohibits military bases, maneuvers, and tests on the Antarctic Continent; the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, a ban on the testing or deployment of "weapons of mass destruction" in Earth's orbit or on other bodies in the solar system; the 1967 Tlatelolco Treaty, prohibiting nuclear weapons in Latin America; and the 1971 Seabed Treaty, banning the placement of weapons of mass destruction on or below the seabed.

SALT I and After

The strategic arms limitation talks (SALT I and SALT II) were first undertaken in the era of détente in the early 1970s, when relations between the United States and the USSR became more amicable. SALT I led to two agreements: the Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty of 1972 (ABM Treaty), which eventually limited each superpower to one site for antiballistic missiles (ABMs), the missiles designed to intercept and destroy incoming missiles; and an "interim" arms agreement limiting the number of inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to those already deployed by specific dates in 1972. It also required that any modernization and replacement of ICBMs and SLBMs be on a one-for-one basis and prohibited any development of new, more powerful ICBMs. The agreement was meant to set limits before a more definitive SALT II treaty could be negotiated. When the SALT II Treaty was signed in 1979, it set a limit of 2,400 strategic missiles and bombers for each side. Although the U.S. Senate did not ratify this treaty, the United States abided by it for several years. The ABM Treaty of SALT I was much more successful than the interim ICBM-SLBM agreement. Because the SALT agreements limited only the number of ICBM launchers, or missiles, both superpowers went on in the 1970s to develop missiles with multiple warheads, called multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Launcher totals thus remained constant, but the number of warheads increased dramatically. Adding warheads to missiles also made nuclear deterrence more unpredictable; a superpower with MIRVs could have enough warheads to destroy the opponent's retaliatory capability, thereby making MAD ineffective. Both superpowers felt that their land-based missile forces had become vulnerable to a first strike from the other side.

Compliance with the SALT treaties became a contentious issue in the 1980s when the United States accused the USSR of violating treaty provisions on the development of new missiles. The administration of President ronald reagan decided that alleged Soviet violations made it necessary to end U.S. compliance with the agreements. In 1986, the United States exceeded limits set by SALT II when a B-52 bomber equipped with cruise missiles (nuclear missiles that fly at a low altitude) entered active service. Another U.S. military proposal, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also complicated the ABM Treaty. In 1983, Reagan made a televised speech in which he announced plans to develop a space-based missile defense system. He presented SDI as an alternative to MAD. SDI would, he claimed, effectively shield the United States from a Soviet missile launch, including an accidental or third-party attack. SDI would also protect the land-based leg of the United States' nuclear triad, the other two legs of which are aircraft bombers and submarine-launched missiles. Many doubted whether such a missile defense system could actually be created, and others criticized SDI as a dangerous upset in the nuclear balance. A debate also arose as to whether SDI was in violation of the ABM Treaty.

Relations between the superpowers eventually warmed when Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as leader of the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Relatively young and dynamic compared with his predecessors, Gorbachev initiated reforms for increased openness in the Soviet Union that facilitated arms control agreements. In 1987, President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, another major step in arms control. The INF Treaty called for the elimination of an entire class of short- and intermediate-range (300- to 3,400-mile) nuclear missiles. These included 1,752 Soviet and 859U.S. missiles. It was the first treaty to result in a reduction in the number of nuclear weapons. The agreement also involved the most complete verification procedures ever for an arms control treaty. These included data exchanges, on-site inspections, and monitoring by surveillance satellites.

After the INF Treaty, the superpowers continued to try to work out a strategic arms reduction treaty that would cut the number of long-range missiles by 50 percent. By that time the superpowers each had nuclear arsenals that could destroy the other many times over, and a 50 percent reduction would still leave nuclear deterrence well intact.

A New World Order

Between 1989 and 1991, a number of significant events brought about the end of the Cold War. In 1989, Gorbachev surprised the world when he led the Soviet Union in its decision to give up its control over Eastern Europe. By the summer of 1991, not only had the Warsaw Pact—a unified group consisting of the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe—dissolved, but so had the Soviet Union itself. Soviet Communism, one-half of the superpower equation for over 40 years, had imploded.

During this time of increasingly warm relations between the superpowers, a number of major arms control treaties were created. On November 19, 1990, the United States, the USSR, and 20 other countries signed the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE Treaty), which President george h. w. bush called "the farthest-reaching arms agreement in history," an accord that "signals the new world order that is emerging." The treaty grew out of a 1989 proposal by Bush that the superpowers each be limited to 275,000 troops in Europe. As events unfolded in Eastern Europe, however, and the countries of the former Eastern Bloc became independent from the USSR, that number of troops began to seem high. Under the CFE Treaty, each side was allowed to deploy, in the area between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains, no more than 20,000 tanks, 30,000 armored troop carriers, 20,000 artillery pieces, 6,800 combat airplanes, and 2,000 attack helicopters. The treaty required the Soviet Union to disarm or destroy nearly 20,000 tanks, artillery pieces, and other weapons, to give a 27 percent reduction in Soviet armaments west of the Urals. That decrease was small, however, compared with the 59,000 weapons the USSR shipped east of the Urals to central Asia between 1989 and 1990 as it sought to realign its forces in response to world events. On the other side, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces—the postwar alliance of Western European and North American states, including the United States—were required to destroy fewer than 3,000 pieces of military equipment. In May 1991, NATO decided to reduce its forces even further. The United States, for its part, reduced the 320,000 troops it had in Europe by at least 50 percent.

Arms agreements on nuclear weapons were also reached during this period. On July 31, 1991, Bush and Gorbachev signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). Negotiations on the technically complex accord had begun as early as 1982. The agreement required the USSR to reduce its nuclear arsenal by roughly 25 percent and the United States to reduce its arsenal by 15 percent, within seven years after ratification by both nations. Numerically speaking, the USSR would reduce its nuclear warheads from 10,841 to 8,040, and the United States would reduce its warheads from 12,081 to 10,395. These amounts would bring the nuclear arsenals of each nation roughly back to levels that existed in 1982, when START negotiations began. The agreement also limited the development of new missiles and required a number of verification procedures, including on-site inspections with spot checks, monitoring of missile production plants, and exchange of data tapes from missile tests.

Arms Control in the Post-Cold War Era

In June 1992, President George H. W. Bush met with Russian president Boris Yeltsin. In a "joint understanding," the two sides agreed to reductions of nuclear weapons beyond the levels provided for in the 1991 START agreement, with the ultimate goal of decreasing the total number of warheads on each side to between 3,000 and 3,500 by the year 2003. The two presidents also agreed to eliminate MIRVs by 2003. This agreement was signed, as START II, in early 1993.

The administration of President bill clinton, who became president of the United States in 1993, revived the debate surrounding missile defense systems—and created fears that a new arms race might begin—when it developed proposals for the Theater High-Altitude Area-Defense System (THAAD). THAAD would be an elaborate missile defense system aimed at protecting allied nations from short-range missile attacks launched by countries such as North Korea. Critics maintained that THAAD would violate the ABM provisions of SALT I, widely believed to be the most successful arms control provisions ever; upset the nuclear balance; and possibly lead to an arms race. Proponents of THAAD maintained that the ABM Treaty was a relic of the Cold War and that missile defenses could protect against accidental nuclear launches.

As for Europe, the new structure of power there would also create new challenges for arms control. Agreements such as the CFE were made when the Soviet Union still existed, and did not necessarily conform to current realities. As the war in the former Yugoslavia demonstrated during the early 1990s, a new political situation posed new risks. Would certain states become regional powers and upset the balance of power? Would agreements that were stabilizing for the Soviet Union turn out to be destabilizing for Russia and other states of the former USSR? Would nationalism rise as a destructive force, as it had before and during previous wars?

Some experts were proposing that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) develop conventional arms control agreements to replace the CFE Treaty. The CSCE was formed in 1973 in an attempt to promote détente between the United States and the USSR. It includes 52 countries—50 European nations plus the United States and Canada. European leaders hoped the CSCE would play a greater role in determining a peaceful, stable future for Europe, with efforts in arms control being one of its major goals. Formally declaring this goal, European leaders signed the Pact of Paris in November 1990. Some leaders were proposing that the CSCE replace NATO as the chief military and political organization in Europe.

During the early 2000s, U.S. defense policy changed dramatically. The election of President george w. bush signaled the rise of neo-conservative policy thinking about post-Cold War security, a framework that no longer prioritized defense against nuclear attack from Russia or the states of the former Soviet Union. Instead, Terrorism and so-called rogue states were said to pose the greatest danger.

In a profound departure from the super-power analysis that had formed the basis of Cold War planning, the threat was now said to come from smaller, weaker nations. Defense planners identified potential threats from North Korea, Iraq, and Iran, which were said to be developing—or as in the case of Pakistan, had already developed—nuclear weapons. They pointed to the failure of international non-proliferation agreements as reasons for the United States to reconfigure its defenses and rethink its previous agreements.Accordingly, the Bush administration moved swiftly on both fronts. In 1999, Bush had campaigned on the promise of reviving the Reagan-era SDI project to provide an anti-missile defense system. In 2001, the president unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty of 1972 in order to remove any legal hindrance from testing and development of missile defense.

The end of the ABM Treaty proved controversial. Advocates of preserving the treaty praised it for preserving strategic stability, allowing for easy verification of each side's nuclear capacity, and maintaining the concept of deterrence. Sharply critical of U.S. unilateral withdrawal, both the Russians and Chinese announced they would respond by increasing their nuclear arsenals. Downplaying this threat, critics of the ABM Treaty doubted that either nation could afford to do so.

Great uncertainties began to cloud the future of arms control. Following the september 11th terrorist attacks on the United States, the White House announced its radical new doctrine of preemptive attack: departing from historical tradition, the Bush administration declared its intention of attacking enemy nations first. Accordingly, despite global objection to the doctrine, the Bush administration ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Meanwhile, the risks of nuclear proliferation were starkly demonstrated in 2002 when Pakistan and India came to the brink of nuclear war, and again that year when North Korea, abrogating its non-proliferation agreement, defied the United States to stop it from developing nuclear weapons. With Washington laying out its largest defense spending in a quarter century, arms control and disarmament were clearly perceived to not be a priority of the Bush administration.

Further readings

Dunn, Lewis A., and Sharon A. Squassoni. 1993. Arms Control: What Next? Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Laird, Melvin R. August 23, 2001. "Why Scrap the ABM Treaty?" Washington Post, A25.

Mufson, Steven. December 16, 2001. "ABM Treaty May Be History, But Deterrence Doctrine Lives." Washington Post, A37.

Sheehan, Michael. 1988. Arms Control: Theory and Practice. Oxford: Blackwell.

Weisman, Steven R. March 23, 2003. "A Nation at War: A New Doctrine, Pre-emption, Idea with a Lineage whose Time Has Come." New York Times, 1B.


Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty of 1972; Blockade; Hot Line Agreement, 1971; Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; International Law; NATO; Nixon, Richard Milhous; Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; Nuclear Weapons; Terrorism; War.