Efforts to impose some degree of order on international conflict have always been a feature of international relations. The AD 989 Peace and Truce of God proclaimed in the Synod of Charroux established noncombatant status for civilians. The 1675 Strasbourg Agreement between France and Germany outlawed poison weapons. Efforts to demilitarize colonial forces and avoid distant conflicts included the 1814 agreement between Great Britain and Spain restricting trade with rebels in Spain's American colonies.
The period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was marked by dramatic increases in the lethality of warfare and concomitant efforts to ban the use of certain munitions, to limit the number of advanced systems deployed, and to restrict the geographic employment of forces. The 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration prohibited explosive projectiles such as dumdum bullets, and the 1899 Second Hague Convention outlawed chemical, bacteriological, and biological weapons. The 1922 Washington Naval Treaty limited the size of naval fleets of signatory nations.
The impact of destructive technologies and practices during World War I spurred a flurry of activity across the interwar period to limit or prohibit certain weapons. Part of this activity was undertaken in the League of Nations. Much of the focus fell on limiting battleships and other major naval combatants and on outlawing poison gas. While the overall effectiveness of many of these efforts can be questioned, the establishment of an international process for disarmament negotiations left a strong legacy as the foundation for Cold War efforts.
Traditionally, the term "disarmament" was used to indicate the full range of historical endeavors to reduce and restrict military weapons and forces. The concept was broadly used as an umbrella under which multiple and varied arrangements and means of implementation could reside. The centrality of the concept of disarmament was supplanted by the term "arms control" early in the nuclear age. In the mid-1950s policymakers began rethinking an approach that had emphasized general and complete disarmament and instead considering limited, partial measures that would gradually enhance confidence in cooperative security arrangements. Thus, more modest goals came to replace the propaganda-laden disarmament efforts of the late 1940s and early 1950s. International security specialists began using the term "arms control" in place of "disarmament," which they believed lacked precision and smacked of utopianism. The fundamental books on the subject published in the early 1960s all preferred "arms control" as a more comprehensive term.
Just as advances in military technologies and lethal practices had spurred an increased focus on disarmament following World War I, World War II saw the introduction of what many considered the ultimate weapon as well as a near-global means of delivery. With the failure of early proposals to eliminate or internationalize control over atomic weapons, the focus shifted toward limiting their development and spread and controlling their use and effects. Western academics and policy analysts soon realized that disarmament in the literal sense of eliminating nuclear weapons was not going to happen; these weapons had become a long-term reality of the international system. Thus, as they began examining these weapons and nuclear strategy, they adopted a preference for terminology that captured efforts to control these weapons and prescribe their use.
This perspective was perhaps best expressed by Thomas Schelling and Morton Halperin in their seminal 1961 book Strategy and Arms Control: "We believe that arms control is a promising... enlargement of the scope of our military strategy. It rests essentially on the recognition that our military relation with potential enemies is not one of pure conflict and opposition, but involves strong elements of mutual interest in the avoidance of a war that neither side wants, in minimizing the costs and risks of the arms competition, and in curtailing the scope and violence of war in the event it occurs." These three goals—avoiding war, minimizing the cost of preparing for war, and reducing the consequences if a war occurred—became the shorthand definition of the term "arms control" during the Cold War.
Arms control in the nuclear age was framed first as a component part of an overall military and national security strategy—as an instrument of policy and an adjunct to force posture rather than a utopian or moral crusade. It captured the more cooperative side of policy, focusing not on imposition but on negotiation and compromise, recognizing a shared interest in avoiding nuclear conflict. It was also goal-oriented: avoiding war, limiting the political and economic costs of preparing for war, and minimizing the consequences of any conflict.
Multilateral efforts early in the Cold War sought to control nuclear weapons by limiting the number of delivery systems, restricting testing, and hindering further technological development and proliferation. Multilateral agreements in the nuclear arena prior to the 1970s banned placing nuclear weapons in Antarctica, in outer space, and on the seafloor. Regional nuclear weapon–free zones were also established during this period in Latin America, the South Pacific, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Early restrictions on atmospheric testing were supplemented by efforts to ban all atmospheric tests and eventually underground weapons test explosions. These efforts were capped by the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that sought to prevent future additions to the nuclear club. These campaigns framed nuclear control issues for further attention on a bilateral basis and established a structure for multilateral efforts extending to other arenas of arms control.
With the completion of the NPT, the primary arms control focus of the Cold War became centered on bilateral strategic controls between the United States and the Soviet Union. The formal arms control negotiating process was characterized by preliminary steps that set the agenda for negotiations: establishing a level of mutual confidence and inspiring self-assurance of the ability to achieve an adequate level of verification to allow strong consideration of a formal, binding agreement. This was followed by a staged four-part negotiation and implementation strategy.
The agenda was often set by progress in other negotiations—either multilateral nuclear efforts or bilateral relations outside of the nuclear arena—or by triggering events such as international crises that created a sense of urgency to pursue heightened cooperation in the nuclear relationship. In all cases, issues to be addressed in the formal process were defined and narrowed to a range that both sides found it comfortable to address. Formal negotiations were supplemented by a series of confidence-building efforts and agreements that established a cooperative base from which to proceed. The essential enabler for all nuclear control agreements was the guarantee of adequate verification means.
Once the preliminary steps were taken (a process that could take years for a major round of agreements), the negotiation process began. Formal talks were established with large delegations representing the full range of affected agencies and functions on each side. These negotiations focused on both the substance of the agreement—with a central focus on equitable and stabilizing controls—and on its implementation. Years of effort and many technical sidebar discussions were necessary in most cases to ensure that the eventual agreement and its implementation would hold no surprises for either side. Predictably, the talks would often hang up on a final series of points of contention, and a summit between very senior officials on each side would be needed to reach final agreement. The third stage, the endgame (including the formal signing of the agreement), would be characterized by elevation to the highest government officials, much pomp and ceremony, and formal staging for both international and domestic political effect. The final stage consisted of implementation, compliance verification, and monitoring. Formal mechanisms, often including elaborate procedural and even organizational structures, characterized the last stage, supplemented by unilateral verification mechanisms as the ultimate guarantor of compliance.
The first bilateral U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms control endeavor established the process that led to the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) and ultimately resulted in the SALT I Interim Agreement—with its adjunct Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty—and the SALT II Treaty. Cold War tensions and a dangerous and expensive nuclear arms race spurred both sides in the 1960s into a series of small cooperative measures and internal organizational steps toward bilateral cooperation on limiting future strategic systems. With the culmination of the NPT and the almost simultaneous attainment of sufficient capabilities in national technical means for unilateral verification, formal bilateral negotiations on SALT began in 1969 within the framework laid out at the 1967 Glassboro Summit.
SALT I, signed in 1972, froze the total number of deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles on both sides and limited the total number of maritime strategic systems that each side could deploy. It also limited the development and deployment of future antiballistic missile systems and restricted other defense technologies. The two sides agreed on the outline of a follow-on agreement at the Vladivostok Summit in 1974. Subsequent detailed negotiations led to the culmination of SALT II in 1979, which placed an aggregate limit on deployed strategic launch vehicles and also limited the numbers of systems that could be equipped with multiple launch systems.
The second series of arms control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union (and, after 1991, Russia) addressed force reductions through the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START)—leading to the START I and START II treaties—and the elimination of an entire class of weapons through the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Beginning simultaneously with the first series of bilateral U.S.–Soviet Union negotiations, a broader series of East-West efforts addressed the reduction of tensions between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact in Europe. While this work addressed trans-European confidence-building measures and conventional force limitations, it also focused attention on the bilateral-theater nuclear systems of the superpowers. By 1987, with the deployment of modern U.S.-theater nuclear weapons under way in Europe (matching earlier Soviet deployments), the INF treaty negotiations came to fruition, and both sides withdrew and destroyed their missiles. A key legacy of this agreement, in addition to its precedent for elimination of an entire category of weapon systems, was its reliance on on-site inspection teams to verify missile removal and destruction on the other side's territory. With on-site inspection as a supplement to national technical means, strategic reduction negotiations could proceed.
The START talks began in 1982 and proceeded throughout the 1980s alongside an extensive series of nuclear confidence-building measures addressing risk reduction and data sharing. The 1992 START I treaty was significant in that it required measured reductions in both nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles, with intrusive verification provisions to ensure compliance. The bilateral nuclear arms control process was so firmly established by the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that a brief series of unilateral initiatives, begun by President George H. W. Bush and reciprocated, in turn, by outgoing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and incoming Russian President Boris Yeltsin, allowed the START process to continue. The START II treaty was signed in 1993. In this agreement both sides agreed to further reduce their nuclear arsenals. In addition, cooperative efforts succeeded in consolidating control and returning Soviet nuclear systems to the Russian Republic and initiating a broad effort to check the proliferation of former Soviet nuclear capabilities. At the 1997 Helsinki Summit, both countries committed themselves to continue the strategic arms reduction process to even lower levels of nuclear warheads through a START III round. This negotiation never took place; instead, the two sides signed the 2002 Moscow Treaty (officially the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty).
Arms control was not solely focused on bilateral U.S.-Soviet strategic arms during the Cold War, however. At the same time, there was a parallel multilateral effort under way in other fields, often led by the United Nations Conference on Disarmament or by regional organizations. These discussions were usually not as highly charged politically as the bilateral efforts, but they did achieve several notable accomplishments. In 1972 the world agreed to ban the production, stockpiling, and use of biological and toxin weapons, for example, and in 1993 it agreed to a similar convention on chemical weapons. NATO and the Warsaw Pact came to an agreement on conventional force levels, composition, and disposition in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty in 1990. A Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was signed in Geneva in 1996 (although it had not yet entered into force as of mid-2005), and discussions are still ongoing regarding a Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty. Nuclear weapon–free zones essentially denuclearized the entire Southern Hemisphere, and a coalition of states and nongovernmental organizations led the effort to ban land mines in 1997. Also, several informal groupings of states, among them the Zangger Committee, the Australia Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, were created to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction technologies.
The agenda for arms control remains extensive. The United States and Russia each retain significant nuclear arsenals. There are nine nuclear-armed states in today's world. Remaining nuclear weapons arsenals and the potential for nuclear proliferation—whether materials, components, systems, weapons, or expertise—will keep nuclear arms control on the agenda. In addition, a whole range of conventional arms remains outside of any effective controls. Other weapons with catastrophic potential—particularly biological and chemical—remain a threat for development and proliferation. Far-reaching technological developments have opened up entire new arenas of potential and actual military development and of concomitant arms control interest. Ongoing efforts—unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral; formal and informal; between nations and also including nonstate parties and interests in some cases—are addressing this wide agenda.
In the post–Cold War world, arms control is seen in slightly altered but no less important forms. First, there is likely to be at least another two or more decades of the U.S.-Russia nuclear reductions implementation process. The cooperative effort to dismantle, control, and destroy the weapons-grade materials from thousands of weapons will be a difficult, expensive, and often contentious process, and it will be compounded and extended with each new round of cuts. The added factor of dealing with strategic defenses will complicate this bilateral endgame, at least in the short term, but it also holds the potential—at least to some observers—of being the only route justifying the continued drawdown of the two strategic nuclear arsenals. In addition, the United States and Russia have yet to address the nonstrategic nuclear weapons that are included in their arsenals. This will even further complicate bilateral arms controls. Finally, similar cooperative efforts to dismantle, control, and destroy former Soviet chemical and biological weapons and capabilities extend the scope and horizons of the bilateral strategic arms control effort. The highly formal bilateral arms control process will certainly be altered, but this series of arms control is far from over.
Second, there is likely to be a continuation of multilateral arms control and disarmament efforts, particularly toward halting and reversing the proliferation and development of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Work remains to be done in fully implementing the NPT and the CTBT and in creating an implementation protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention. New and emerging arenas for arms control may include efforts to control or ban small arms and land mines, discussion of controls on advanced conventional weapons, and emerging venues of interest in space and cyberspace.
Further, major regional arms control and disarmament efforts are just emerging. Europe has long addressed security cooperation, confidence building, and conventional arms control issues, and that effort will no doubt continue. Other regions have adopted nuclear weapon–free zones, and some have established regional and subregional cooperative programs on a range of economic, political, and security issues. Today, with the emergence of new nuclear states in South Asia and with heightened proliferation concerns ranging from East Asia to the Middle East, efforts will be initiated and intensified to establish regional mechanisms for transparency and security.
International events beginning in late 2001 have had a profound effect on all dimensions of international relations. Global terrorism and actions well outside accepted norms of international behavior by rogue and failing states raise critical challenges to the foundations of cooperation and diplomacy that lie at the heart of arms control. In the short term there is an increased emphasis on strengthened nonproliferation as well as an expressed willingness to pursue active counterproliferation or preemption. At the same time, there is also the ongoing and active agreement on the part of the United States and Russia to enact strategic nuclear weapons cuts to 2,000 or fewer warheads on each side. Given the historical record and the net effect of all of these trends, there is reason to believe that arms control and disarmament will remain relevant into the foreseeable future.
Jeffrey A. Larsen
Larsen, Jeffrey A., and James M. Smith. Historical Dictionary of Arms Control and Disarmament. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005.; Larsen, Jeffrey A., ed. Arms Control: Cooperative Security in a Changing Environment. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002.; Levi, Michael E., and Michael O'Hanlon. The Future of Arms Control. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005.; Schelling, Thomas, and Morton Halperin. Strategy and Arms Control. New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1961.