Arms control is essentially a law-creating process at the international level. It refers to any tacit or explicit agreement among states aimed at reducing the likelihood of war, the costs of preparing for war, or the damage should war occur. Originally, it referred to any such agreement between prospective opponents (and assumed that friendly states would have no need for arms control), but this prerequisite element of potential hostility has long since passed as the concept has broadened in practice to include multinational agreements among groups of like-minded states.
Arms control may encompass both formal and informal means of agreement. Formal arms control agreements consist of signed documents, which are considered legally binding. They are normally subject to ratification by their parties’ respective national legislatures before they enter into force. Formal arms control agreements seek to achieve their goals through restricting or reducing the numbers of military weapons or by placing limits on their operation and can include a variety of verification and transparency measures, such as on-site inspections, reciprocal exhibitions of military hardware, notifications, joint exercises, and data exchanges.
Informal approaches may be either written or simply announced and can include reciprocal unilateral declarations (of arms reductions or force realignments), working group consultations, unilateral initiatives taken with the expectation of contributing to resolving political or military tensions, and participation in multinational groups aimed at combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
The modern concept of arms control arose in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a means of moderating U.S.-Soviet arms race behavior. Arms control theorists of that era postulated that given the means to independently verify military capabilities through newly developed satellite technology, the superpowers, through the implementation of incrementally more encompassing and intrusive arms control and inspection arrangements, starting with very modest initiatives, should be able to surmount the distrust that had given rise to the Cold War.
Since the rise of modern arms control theory, an intense debate has arisen over the prospects and necessary conditions for arms control’s success or failure. On the one hand, the community favoring arms control has largely focused on the intangible benefits allegedly accruing from the process of negotiation, which include greater mutual understanding, deliberate focusing of national energies on more-stable avenues of competition, and lessening of political tension. This school of thought has generally assumed that arms control could transcend political tensions among prospective arms control partners. Scholars take the negotiation and signing of increasingly ambitious arms control arrangements by more and more states on both a bilateral and a multilateral basis as evidence of the success of this approach.
On the other hand, those skeptical of arms control have focused on the allegedly poor track record of tangible arms control results, noting that arms control has seemed most feasible where it is least needed. They have also taken issue with the very assumptions of arms control theory, arguing that arms control has emphasized the inherently futile task of finding technical solutions to essentially political problems. Skeptics of arms control have also emphasized problems of verification and compliance. The essential verification problem has been the limited ability of surveillance technology fully and adequately to monitor the activities of a treaty party who was determined to find ways to cheat on its obligations. The compliance problem revolves around the reluctance of some states to act on unavoidably ambiguous evidence of cheating, where standards of evidence are set unrealistically high, out of concern that raising such issues would itself complicate the prospects for further progress in the arms control process. These two problems are, according to the critics of arms control, compounded by the asymmetries between an open and law-abiding Western culture, and those closed, controlled, and distrusting governments bent on exploiting advantages gained by cheating on assumed international obligations.
Arms control, as have so many other aspects of national security, has been subject to considerable rethinking in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet empire and the Cold War. For some, the end of the bilateral U.S.-Soviet arms competition has meant that arms control has lost its primary relevance. The new era of American preeminence requires that the United States free itself from as many arms control “constraints” as possible. Legally binding treaties incorporating complex verification measures have outlived their usefulness.
For others, the end of the Cold War has meant a realignment of the arms control agenda but no diminishment of arms control as an instrument of national strategy. Most agree that the new focus of arms control must be on combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction through a new focus on multilateral mechanisms. Securing residual nuclear stockpiles in Russia and the United States, as well as in other countries, has also loomed large on the post–Cold War security agenda, and a variety of policy initiatives have arisen to address these concerns. However, these new initiatives, such as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, fall outside the traditional definition of arms control. Yet, their objectives correspond with the fundamental objectives of classic arms control theory; that is, they consist of cooperative efforts to reduce the threat of war; to promote stability, transparency, and predictability; and to limit the damage should war occur.
Other multilateral nonproliferation efforts also enlarge the definition of arms control because they are not based on legally binding or formal treaties but are often nonbinding “supplier groups,” or groups of nations that have formed voluntary associations to restrict international trade in weapon systems deemed destabilizing. Such is the case, for example, with the Missile Technology Control Regime, which consists of more than thirty countries that have agreed to restrict the international transfer of missiles and missile technology.
Arms control, then, in its broadest sense, is likely to remain a critical component of international stability and national strategy, even as the forms it takes may evolve to meet the changing and dynamic requirements of the international community.
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