Au Revoir, Arms Control

Au Revoir, Arms Control

Arms control once held center stage in U.S. foreign policy, but it has quietly faded away.

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“The Rise and Fall of Arms Control” by Avis Bohlen, in Survival (Autumn 2003), International Institute for Strategic Studies, Arundel House, 13-15 Arundel St., Temple Place, London WC2R 3DX, England.

From the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 to the astonishing summit at Reykjavik in 1986, arms control treaties and talks gave the Cold War some of its most dramatic moments. But the era of strategic arms control ended in late 2001 with a whimper, not a bang, when President George W. Bush announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty—and, despite a host of dire predictions, nothing happened.

Signed 18 years after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the 1963 treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests was the first East-West nuclear agreement. “It put nuclear issues and arms control squarely on the U.S.-Soviet political agenda,” observes Bohlen, a retired Foreign Service officer and former assistant secretary of state for arms control (1999–2002), though it did little to stop the growth of nuclear arsenals or even limit testing (which went underground).

During the administration of Richard Nixon, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) culminated in 1972 in the ABM treaty, which limited each side to two ground-based anti-ballistic missile sites (later reduced to one). The treaty was not the joint commitment to “mutual assured destruction” that critics imagined, Bohlen argues, but a recognition that invulnerability was impossible.

SALT II negotiations soon commenced, and President Jimmy Carter signed an agreement in 1979. But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan later that year made ratification impossible. The demise of SALT II marked the end of “serious arms-control negotiations for many years,” Bohlen writes. Yet there were “modest gains in transparency and predictability,” and regular dialogue “served to reinforce the reality of deterrence.”

President Ronald Reagan, at heart, “found the whole idea of mutual deterrence morally repugnant,” Bohlen says. At Reyk­javik in October 1986, “the nuclear disarmer in Reagan was swept along” by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—until, at the summit’s eleventh hour, their “breathtaking” arms reduction proposals fell apart because Reagan would not surrender his Strategic Defense Initiative, the plan for a global shield against nuclear weapons.

The START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) treaties of the early 1990s achieved arms control goals the United States had been pursuing for almost two decades, but by then, “the threat to which these goals responded was ceasing to exist,” Bohlen notes. Even so, the treaties were “indispensable instruments” for managing the end of the Cold War in an orderly fashion. (The U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal now contains 2,200 warheads.)

Today, when the top priority is keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of rogue states and terrorists, arms control is no longer at center stage. Yet it still has a modest but important role, rooted in multilateral pacts such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968). Bohlen concludes: “Defining rules about what is broadly acceptable to the international comm­unity remains essential to defining the kind of international order we wish to maintain.”

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