Neglected Arms Control

Pigeons sit on a South Korean missile on display at the Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul on June 4. (Photo: Kim Jae-Hwan/ AFP-Getty Images)

Arms control went out of fashion several years ago. We can already see negative consequences of this neglect, but still more serious problems loom ahead. If we stay on our current course, international agreements are likely to erode further, with tensions rising and military spending increasing.

So what happened to arms control? To start with, one of the major arms control agreements, the treaty banning certain types of anti-ballistic missiles, was cancelled by the U.S. Another, capping the arsenals of heavy weapons in Europe, has been suspended by Russia. Efforts to add teeth to the Biological Weapons Treaty through verification have been thwarted. A treaty banning all nuclear tests was concluded more than 10 years ago, but still has not been ratified by enough states to be viable. The START Treaty, limiting the number of U.S. and Russian delivery systems for strategic nuclear missiles, expires this year, and so far there has been little effort to replace it. These examples are far from an exhaustive list.

Worst of all is the crisis surrounding the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1967. Under this, states without nuclear weapons renounced their right to go nuclear. In turn, the existing nuclear powers promised to disarm in the longer term. The treaty certainly helped to slow the pace of nuclear proliferation, so instead of the 20-30 new nuclear weapon states that had been widely predicted in the early 1960's, there have been only four more—Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Three states that have in the past possessed nuclear weapons have since given them up—South Africa, Belarus and Ukraine.

Yet the threat of nuclear proliferation has of late again been growing. A major cause is the delay in disarmament by the original nuclear powers. Non-nuclear weapon states are particularly annoyed with Washington and Moscow, which each still have several thousand nuclear warheads in their arsenals, even though more than 40 years have passed since the conclusion of the N.P.T. Although they frequently repeat their pledges to get rid of nuclear weapons, in practice they seem bent on keeping them.

Another concern is renewed interest around the world in civilian nuclear energy. Iran is just the first of what is likely to be many future cases of nuclear capability—ostensibly for civilian purposes but easily transformable for military use.

There is, however, a positive side to the arms control picture. Some efforts at humanitarian arms control have succeeded, and now there are treaties banning anti-personnel mines, blinding lasers and cluster bombs. The trade in small arms and light weapons is better controlled now than it was ten years ago, with negotiations on an arms trade treaty likely to start soon. Even though a number of the leading arms producing countries have not given their support to humanitarian arms control, the drive to limit them seems to be working, with the use of anti-personnel mines having declined.

Another positive development has been the way arms control now involves other players than just nation states. Traditionally, arms control was largely limited to state actions as the only ones that could legally sign international treaties. Now, arms control in the 21st century also addresses sub-state actors, including armed groups and terrorists. They have been involved in efforts to control the trade in small arms and light weapons, in the ban on anti-personnel mines and in United Nations Resolution 1540, which is aimed at strengthening national controls to prevent non-state actors from engaging in any activities that relate to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. In all these cases, the idea is to institute international standards for the regulation of acceptable behavior of non-state actors, as well as to improve states' abilities to implement them.

Yet despite these positive developments, and others like verification technology, the overall balance is still clearly negative. Humanitarian arms control and non-state arms control are important, but they are not enough to stop major states from armed confrontation, nor do they address the security dilemma.

The idea of the security dilemma was first set out in the early 1950's by a German-American political scientist called John Herz to describe the simple phenomenon that, when one state builds up its arms capability, it will inevitably be seen by a rival state as a threat. That rival state will in turn then build up its own arsenal. Instead of increasing security, the uncoordinated build-up of armaments decreases security.

Arms control was devised in the late 1950's and early 1960's to defuse the security dilemma. Its principle purpose was to introduce strategic stability and prevent arms races. Rivals were to agree on which weapons they judged to be particularly threatening, and then to limit their deployment. Arms control was designed, too, to limit the degree of devastation in those cases where nations actually went to war, and also to restrict the cost burden of defense investment.

When the Cold War ended, arms control received a major push. A number of major agreements were concluded. But by the mid-1990's, enthusiasm again began to wane. As the sole superpower, the United States increasingly saw arms control as a brake on its power. The Clinton Administration still pushed in the late 90's for new agreements, like the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban, but the Republican majority in the Congress rejected them. Things deteriorated further under President George W. Bush, with many American policymakers asking why regulate if there is no problem, and why control arms when there is no rivalry among the major powers.

Both arguments against arms control were shortsighted, as history is now beginning to show. Arms control is easiest to achieve when it is least needed, and becomes the most necessary as soon as it is difficult to get. With hindsight we can now see that it would have been a sensible precaution against future increases in international tension to pursue arms control when it was easy to achieve.

Similarly, it is shortsighted for a sole superpower to trust in its own might and to refuse its cooperation. Any world power should have an interest in limiting the military capabilities of potential and future rivals. Even for a superpower, it makes good sense to enter agreements that freeze armaments cooperatively, whatever the price to be paid in terms of reduced military options. But George W. Bush and his neo-conservative advisors thought differently, and destroyed rather than fostered arms control.

What has this neglect of arms control led to? One striking effect is that it has critically reduced the credibility of major Western countries when arguing for armaments restraint. A case in point is the difficulty of convincing Iran to cooperate on nuclear policy; and more such cases are unfortunately likely in the future. The coming nuclear renaissance will aggravate the credibility gap created by arms control's neglect. The chief victim in all this will be the very promising proposal that expansion of civilian nuclear energy should be linked directly to non-proliferation, namely by pooling the production of fissile material in just a very few multilateral facilities. Non-nuclear states seem unlikely, though, to accept a second asymmetric deal on nuclear technology in light of what the nuclear weapons states have done to the first treaty.

The collapse of arms control will make itself felt increasingly in the relationship between Russia and the West. With Russia reasserting itself in security and defense terms, President Medvedev has threatened to deploy short-range missiles in the Kaliningrad area as a counter to U.S. missile defenses being stationed in Poland. And if relations between Russia and the West worsen, we can probably expect more of the same. The sooner that arms control is back on the international agenda, the easier it will be to get new agreements limiting heavy conventional weapons, short-range missiles and nuclear warheads.

We must not forget the financial side of arms control. Military spending is already higher in real terms than during the Cold War, and it is using up resources that could be used to fund education, fight poverty and mitigate climate change.

The European Union, along with most of its member states, has watched the erosion of arms control uneasily, but without making much effort to save it. The advent of the Obama Administration in Washington has opened a window of opportunity for renewing arms control, and Europe has a strong interest in taking on a leadership role in a fresh drive to halt weapons, and especially nuclear weapons proliferation. Its shared goal with the U.S. should be the implementation of a new arms control strategy that will improve international security and stability.

This article was originally published by europesworld.org.