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Arms Control and Arms Reductions in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

Arms control is a strategy by governments to overcome the security dilemma with institutionalized cooperation. It comes in three versions, arms control proper, with stability as the main objective; non-proliferation as a sub-category of arms control, so understood with the main objective being to preserve the distributive status quo concerning certain weapon types; and disarmament, with the objective to eliminate a specific weapon type. Confidence building is a crosscutting functional concept lumping together many different measures that can serve all three versions.

Arms control does not reject self-help as a basis of national security, but entrusts a significant piece of it to cooperation with potential enemies. Hence, arms control—with the exception of unilateral, hegemonic arms control imposed on others, and of non-proliferation for preserving an existing oligopoly—is a difficult subject for realism and neorealism, but also for post-modernism. It presents a solvable puzzle for rationalists and no problem at all for constructivists who, to the contrary, can dig into norms, discourses, and identities.

Concerning stability and change, arms control can be looked at from two opposite perspectives. Since it aims at stability, critical security approaches have labeled it as a conservative, status quo orientated strategy. But there is also a transformational perspective: arms control as a vehicle to induce and reinforce a fundamental redefinition of the relationship between states. Naturally, the concept of disarmament shows the greatest affinity to the transformational perspective.

A related issue is whether arms control is a result of political circumstances, a dependent variable without a political impact of its own, or whether it has causal effect on interstate relations. Constructivism proposes a dialectical relationship in which arms control and broader policy influence each other. From this reflection, the question of the conditions of success and failure flows naturally. Conducive interstate relations (or extrinsic shocks), technology, domestic structures, learning, leadership, perception, and ideology have been candidates for the independent master variable.

Three models tackle the relationship of arms control and historical time: the enlightenment intuition of steady progress; a series of waves, each of which leaves the world in a more cooperative state than the previous one; and the circle—arms control ebbs and flows alternatively, but achievements are fully lost in each ebb period.

We can distinguish four arms control discourses: arms control as the maiden of deterrence; arms control subordinated to defense needs; arms control under the imperative of disarmament; and arms control as the instrument of human security, the survival and well-being of human individuals, notably civilians.

As with all politics, arms control involves justice issues: the distribution of values (security/power), access to participation in decision making, and the granting of recognition as legitimate actor. Arms control negotiations are ripe with justice claims, and failure through incompatible justice demands happens frequently. Also, emotions play a key role: frustration and ensuing resentment, anger, and existential fear can prevent success. Finally, compassion, empathy, and trust are ingredients in successful arms control processes.

Keywords: arms control, disarmament, non-proliferation, arms control waves, realism/neorealism, post-modernism, constructivism, security cooperation, confidence-building


Arms Control presents a most interesting and even puzzling deviation by nation states from the standard model of self-help to ensure national security: Arms Control implies cooperation with the rival. This requirement places part of the conditions for national security in the hands of potential war enemies. The subject has been studied since the successful Soviet Sputnik test of 1957 augured nuclear parity. This is no coincidence, of course. The start of a missile with an intercontinental range that could carry a nuclear warhead was the final proof of the penetrability of national borders by weapons against which defense would not be possible. A nuclear Pearl Harbor loomed. To achieve protection against this calamity, many analysts concluded, required collaboration with the rival in the form of Arms Control.

Discussion starts with the definition of key Arms Control terms and the concepts that underlie them. The question—in practical terms—is whether we can ascribe political impact to Arms Control policy (see “Impact: Does Arms Control Matter?”). The way Arms Control discourses are framed by scholars and politicians, and how they relate to international relations theory are discussed in the section “Academic and Political Discourses” and “International Relations Theories and Arms Control.” The sections “Reasons of Success and Failure” and “Stability and Change” return to practice and show what factors account for successful and failed attempts at Arms Control and how these factors worked or did not work during different periods of recent history. The section “Justice and Emotions in Arms Control Policy” discusses two interrelated factors, justice and emotions, that have been understudied in the field, but are strongly relevant according to some more recent research.

Definitions and Concepts

Arms Control, in a nutshell, is a strategy by governments to overcome the security dilemma by (more or less) institutionalized cooperation in the “high politics” field of security. By devoting efforts to Arms Control, governments invest resources to achieve national security—not by confronting their opposites, but by cooperating with them: national armaments are conducted according to jointly agreed rules.

Unfortunately, and confusing to readers, the term arms control is used in both a general and a specific way. On the general level (and in most uses in common language), arms control means all governmental and sub-governmental efforts to achieve such joint rules and to ensure compliance with them. In the remainder of this article, capital letters are used in the term Arms Control when it is employed in this general sense.

Arms Control in this general meaning however, takes on three very different modes of practice. The first version means arms control in the specific sense: it aims at an agreed balance of forces, with stability as the main objective. The second version is non-proliferation, preventing the further spread of certain categories of weapons, with the main objective being to preserve the distributive status quo concerning the weapon type in question, which is also meant to ensure stability by reducing the potential number of state dyads disposing of this particularly dangerous weaponry. The third version is disarmament, with the central objective being to eliminate the weapon type in question. Confidence building, a frequently used related term, does not present a self-standing type but is a cross-cutting functional category, lumping together a panoply of different measures that can serve all three versions—arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament.

Differences in Causal Assumptions

These three modes rely on different philosophies in terms of the causal relationships between arms and conflict (Lamb, 1988, pp. 184–186). Arms control sees conflict as an independent variable: it is ubiquitous in the world of states. This means automatically that armament is a natural element of national policy and is morally neutral, neither good nor bad. Arms are in the world because conflict is in the world, and states have to provide for their own security in the absence of any higher authority that would manage and settle conflicts. The mode of arming, the constellation of military postures and strategy, however, may take a decisive influence on the conduct of war, and its variations make the difference between a peaceful and a war-torn world. A world in which all states bet on “blitzkrieg” as their response to a crisis, or plan for a nuclear first strike for any hot conflict with a nuclear armed enemy, would be incredibly unstable and dangerous. By adapting military postures and strategies through arms control agreements, then, states could escape from this walk at the brink. Arms control has the potential to influence a conflictual relationship with a view to avoid war by manipulating postures and strategies, and thereby balances and constellations, toward stability.

Disarmament draws the causal arrow in the opposite direction: The fact that everybody is heavily armed creates fear and gives incentives to governments for attacking first before becoming victim to an attacking enemy. Arms create both fear and the temptation to take rescue to arms to end this fear. The presence of arms is the cause for violent conflict; therefore, without arms: no war. The logically ensuing strategy is disarmament, the elimination of arms as the causes of war. Depending on preference and taste, priority might be given to dismantling either the most destabilizing or the most inhumane weapons.

Non-proliferation has a greater affinity to arms control thinking with its intuitive support for the distributive status quo. However, in the real world, non-proliferation has been connected with disarmament by the pressure emanating from the “have-nots” against the “haves.” Countries that renounce a powerful and supposedly useful weapon, notably nuclear arms, want to make sure that the oligopoly of weapons possessors will remain temporary and not become permanent.

The Basic Condition for Arms Control to Work

As will be discussed, successful Arms Control is dependent on a couple of relevant conditions. At this point, it is necessary to note the most basis condition, without which this approach has no chance for getting off the ground: Governments must be interested in either security or status to engage in the attempt to forge a consensus with competitors. They must want national security, because Arms Control would make the suffering of an attack improbable and thus foster the security of the state. They must want status, because a balance of forces that serves the security of all may simultaneously convey equal standing on all participants. Where governments strive for hegemony, superiority, annihilation of their enemy, or simply internal regime security against domestic opposition (Koblentz, 2013), Arms Control is facing insurmountable obstacles. Since these unfavorable motivations derive from internal conditions (ideology, culture, psychology, domestic politics), they direct attention to the internal fabric of the “black box” state and indicate that the first level of analysis, interstate relations, is a necessary but not sufficient object of study to understand the entirety of circumstances that make Arms Control fly or fail.

Arms Control Related to Political Space

Because of its functional variability, Arms Control can be pursued and realized at the global, regional, or bilateral level. Global multilateral regimes have grown notably in the field of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and in humanitarian arms control (e.g., the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel landmines). The most important bilateral arms control regimes were the treaties regulating nuclear armament between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia; of course, given the size and reach of the arsenals, these bilaterals had a tremendous global meaning. But bilateral confidence-building measures in the nuclear realm between India and Pakistan and between Argentina and Brazil have been relevant as well. Regional agreements, for example nuclear weapon free zones (NWFZ) fall in between the bilateral and the global. The relation between the regional and the global is ambivalent. Nuclear weapon free zones have been established out of concern that the superpowers’ nuclear arms race could lead to grave damage to the regions that have tried to shelter themselves against being sucked into a nuclear exchange. However, zones have been established during periods of high superpower tension and periods of superpower détente, apparently driven more by regional entrepreneurship than by causal interdependency between the global and the regional level (Vignard, 2011).

Development of the Academic Field

While there have been attempts at arms regulation for millennia (Croft, 1996, pp. 20–31; Lamb, 1988, pp. 19–57; Wheeler, 2002, pp. 20–22), the approach has taken off as a policy field only with the industrialization of warfare, and has become a systematically practiced and studied area only well into the East–West Conflict. The basic tenets of arms control were worked out in the 1950s and early 1960s, largely in the United States (Brennan, 1961; Bull, 1965; Schelling & Halperin, 1961).

Thus, 1961 saw the first classic publications on the subject. Since, the score of publications has grown into the thousands, with a three-digit number added every year. It is impossible to do justice to this wealth of knowledge, data, positions, and aberrations from rational discourse. This article is, therefore, both subjective and selective. It tries to give neither a chronology of Arms Control, nor a chronology of Arms Control research, nor a systematic review of “theories of Arms Control.” Rather, it selects what the author deems the most pertinent, essential, and interesting topics from the indefinite mass of ideas and findings, and discusses them as concisely and briefly as possible. That selectivity is a relative term can be easily gauged from the remaining length of the bibliography. References range from 1961 to 2016, because throughout the decades, valuable or at least interestingly controversial thoughts have been published that are still worth considering.

The core of the concept and the ensuing strategies have been stable ever since, as standard works from the 1980s (Lamb, 1988; Sheenan, 1988), 1990s (Croft, 1996), and into the new century document (Larsen, 2002; Müller & Schörnig, 2006), though analysts have always been adapting the detail to new constellations (e.g., the end of the Cold War; the emergence of new actors) or challenges (e.g., the development of bioengineering, cyberwar, lethal autonomous weapons systems; Larsen, 2002, Part IV). Simultaneously, detractors of the approach have struggled since the 1960s to deconstruct the theory and strategy, deny its possibility in the harsh world of international competition, or confine it to a singular historical period (e.g., the Cold War) but not beyond (e.g., Gray, 1992).

Impact: Does Arms Control Matter?

The Basic Controversy

A central issue is this: Does Arms Control depend on political circumstances, with no impact on policy of its own, or does it have a causal effect on interstate relationships? Detractors and critics of the concept have maintained that Arms Control is the dependent variable: “Arms control is not possible when it is needed and possible when it is not needed” is the relevant formula in this regard. Highly competitive and confrontational state relations, where Arms Control would be useful for stabilizing the situation, are not conducive to Arms Control, while in amiable relations, when trust is large enough to motivate substantial agreements, the relationship is stable and not war-prone anyway (Gray, 1992; see also Fatton, 2016). On this basis, Arms Control has no standing on its own in international politics; it is either a symbolic ruse, or totally useless (Young, 1972).1 Conservatives Wallop and Codevilla went even further. They called the “arms control process between the United States and the Soviet Union a delusion foisted by some Americans upon other Americans, and perhaps on themselves” (Wallop & Codevilla, 1987, p. 4).

There is no doubt that the international situation creates opportunities and constraints for Arms Control. Negotiations are initiated for a variety of reasons; apart from security, reassuring or pleasing allies and one’s own population can be valid motivations. In most cases, however, diplomatic capital is spent because governments see at least a tiny chance that they might succeed, and this indicates at least a probabilistic expectation that the partner/opponent might be trustworthy enough to enable the emergence of an agreement (Lamb, 1988, pp. 197–201). This expectation is influenced by the state of the relationship (Freedman, 1982, pp. 48–49).

However, the expectation is also a matter of perception, and this inserts a subjective element into the causal chain. Experience shows that, within a national elite, perceptions of the opponent may differ, and these perceptions constitute the basis for different policies. The seeming impossibility to succeed with Arms Control can be the consequence of the enemy image held by the people in power, and the confrontational relationship can be the dependent variable of the foreign policy produced on the basis of this enemy image. It is no coincidence that two of the impasses in Arms Control development between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia took place under Republican administrations that were either extremely distrustful of the Soviets (Reagan) or extremely unilateral-offensive in external policy preferences (George W. Bush); a third impasse was largely authored by a Russian government that was utterly distrustful of the United States (Putin). It is only fair to give a chance to the proposition that Arms Control can have causal effect.

The Impacts of Norms on Compliance

The most basic impact is the change of states’ behavior through Arms Control norms: do governments comply in a way that changes their behavior compared with the status quo ante? The answer is yes: As for international law in general, it is true for Arms Control agreements that most parties comply with most stipulations most of the time.

Studies on compliance abound. It should suffice here to focus on selected findings at two levels of analysis: the level of international Arms Control regimes and the level of the individual regime member. Alexander Kelle has scrutinized the state of affairs in the chemical weapons control (CWC) eight years after it entered into force (Kelle, 2004) and compared the CWC and the biological weapons control (BWC) (Kelle, 2014). He found that—as Chayes and Chayes diagnosed it for international law in general (Chayes & Chayes, 1993)—most non-compliance is marginal and results from the ambiguity of undertakings, unrealistic timelines for implementation, and lack of capacity, rather than from bad faith: Chemical weapons possessors had entered into or even completed the process of dismantlement, states with chemical industries had submitted their required reports and undergone related inspection, many, though not all parties had installed export controls to avoid prescribed transfers, and moderate efforts had been made to foster cooperation among parties in civilian chemical technology (Kelle, 2004). By and large, Kelle’s findings mirror the situation in other multilateral regimes.

The effect is also visible in that, in cases of suspected or proven non-compliance, regime members refer to the obligations of the rule-breaching state and in many cases take measures between soft (admonition and attempts at persuasion) and harsh (economic sanctions) to bring the party back into good standing. Jeffrey Knopf (2012) has constructed two specific pathways in which such causal influence could be identified for state behavior inside a multilateral Arms Control regime: in a rationalist framework, the interest of parties to an Arms Control treaty, in the preservation of the security gains which that treaty affords them, could be willing to strengthen compliance instruments and to assist in enforcement against breaches of the rules. In a constructivist framework, the existence of an Arms Control norm could have the same effect on parties’ policies, as the existence of the norm would support enforcement of appropriate behavior. In both cases, the existence of the treaty would be the necessary reason for the actors to show the said behavior; without it, they might have acted otherwise (Knopf, 2012, pp. 108–119). Case studies have shown how working in the regimes can mobilize norm-entrepreneurial pro-activism by some states for initiatives to strengthen the regime by incremental or major reform—or destroy it (Becker-Jakob, Hofmann, Müller, & Wunderlich, 2013).

At the individual state level, it has been shown that essential mechanisms for enhancing the probability of compliance are the legal procedures to ratify the treaty, which instructs national bureaucracies to behave accordingly, and the translation of treaty undertakings into national law, the creation of implementation agencies, and the budgeting for implementation. In democracies, the constitutional role of parliaments in the ratification process creates a significant but not insurmountable barrier to reversal (Müller, 1993). Over time, practices change; an appropriate bias in favor of compliance emerges. The socialization of new generations of politicians, administrators, and diplomats makes treaty membership a matter of fact, and in the end, even the way people understand their national identity may be affected (Müller, 2003).

If Arms Control can change the behavior of states within a regime, a more daring question arises. Can Arms Control influence even states that do not belong to such a regime at all? Data suggest that the norm of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was essential to persuade the majority of states that had ever considered, started, conducted and even completed a nuclear weapon program to renounce nuclear weapons in the end and submit to NPT norms (Müller & Schmidt, 2010). This has also been proven by detailed case studies of nuclear restraint (Rublee, 2009). The normative strength of the NPT is also apparent in the large number of developing countries today that dispose of the financial means needed for a nuclear weapons program, and several dozen states that possess an incipient nuclear technology base. Even more impressive is the finding that the key technology to obtain bomb-capable fissile material, enrichment, could also be produced indigenously by a large number of developing countries (Kemp, 2014, pp. 74–78). Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority complies faithfully with the NPT.

Another potential influence is the potentially ambivalent external effect of superpower nuclear disarmament: It could lead to nuclear armament by the have-nots because reductions of the nuclear arsenals could reduce as well the power differential between them and the superpowers, and thereby lower entry costs. Moreover, extended deterrence could lose credibility and motivate nuclear armament by states formerly under a “nuclear umbrella” (Tkacik, 2002). Conversely, nuclear disarmament could motivate the end of nuclear “hedging,” or the preparation for “breakout” by non-nuclear weapon states because of the good example, a lessened threat to become the victim of a nuclear threat, and the devaluation of nuclear weapons (Ritchie, 2013, 2014) that disarmament indicates. In fact, more nuclear weapons programs were given up during periods of détente, when many Arms Control treaties—nuclear and otherwise—were concluded, than during ice age periods of tension, when agreements were absent or very rare; in such periods, most nuclear weapons programs were started (Müller & Schmidt, 2010).

The Permissive Effect of Prohibition Norms

One of the criticisms of critical security studies scholars has been that the prohibition of some weapons has had the effect of legitimizing non-prohibited weapons (Cooper, 2011; Mathur, 2011). Indeed, there is the “permissive” effect, which results from the stigmatization of the prohibited weapons as inhuman, which implies in turn that weapons not banned simultaneously are not equally inhumane. For material and psychological reasons, the focus on banning a specific weapon system will very probable prevent efforts to ban other weapons with comparable effects at the same time: The campaign to get rid of incendiary weapons (napalm) in the 1980s postponed action on landmines and cluster munitions for one and two decades, respectively. The material factor is the resource restraint (financial, time, diplomatic capital) of ban proponents (NGOs and like-minded governments), which makes it difficult to tackle more than one item at a time. The psychological effect is the impossibility of focusing and maintaining attention of both activists and the public (media and people) on more than one issue in a certain time-span (Rosert, 2015, 2016). As the sequence from incendiary weapons (prohibited in 1983), to anti-personnel mines (prohibited in 1997), to cluster munitions (prohibited in 2009) demonstrates, however, this permissive/preventive effect is determining only temporarily.

In the long-term, the opposite effect can be observed, “issue cascading”: The successful subjection on one type of weapon under the anti-humanitarian stigma makes it easier for a follow-up campaign to frame the next candidate for a ban in a way that promises success. The framing of a weapon type in analogy or comparison with an already stigmatized one (grafting) becomes easier as more weapons fall under a ban, and more characteristics and attributes are available to draw parallels to a weapon that is still permitted (Price, 1998, pp. 627–631). If permissive or preventive effects mean that old Arms Control stands in the way of new Arms Control, the cascading effect shows that old Arms Control can engender new Arms Control.

Real World Effects

So far, the discussion has dealt with the effects of Arms Control on state behavior. Changed state behavior, of course, has effects on the physical world: Due to the implementation of Arms Control agreements, there are fewer nuclear weapons (between 15,000 and 16,000, instead of more than 60,000, at the height of the Cold War); fewer chemical weapons, fewer biological weapons; fewer states possessing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in the world; and fewer conventional weapon systems in Europe than would have been the case otherwise.

The most impressive numbers come from humanitarian Arms Control groups: According to the Red Cross, the number of victims of landmines was at 20,000 the year before the Ottawa Convention. It has gone down to 3,500 per year since. By the end of 2015, international production and transfer of these weapons had commensurately shrunk, including by some non-member producers, quite a remarkable external effect of the norm; even 48 non-state armed groups have renounced the use of mines on the initiative of the NGO Geneva Call. Twenty-nine states were declared mine-free through efforts under the Ottawa Convention (International Committee of the Red Cross, 2016). By the end of 2014, 3.68 million anti-personnel mines had been destroyed in operations pursuant to the Convention (Landmines Report, 2009, p. 1; Landmines Report, 2015, p. 2). Surprisingly, in light of so many lives saved, some scholars belonging to the Critical Security Studies school contend that humanitarian Arms Control constitutes a well-concealed submission of civil society to the imperatives of Western militarism (Beier, 2011; Cooper, 2011; Mathur, 2011, 2012, 2014). This assessment of the mine campaign as “reconstitution of the West (and Western interest)” having “played a crucial (even decisive) role in the construction of the ‘landmine crisis’” (Krause & Latham, 1998, p. 44) remains mysterious: First, both the Ottawa and the Oslo conventions were opposed by the quintessential Western power, the United States. Second, both were enthusiastically supported by the main victims of the prohibited weapons, namely the countries from Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia (Price, 1998, pp. 640–641). One could suspect that, based on ideological doctrine, some scholars are critical of all but their own perceptual biases, a strong similarity to some of the realist and neo-conservative critics of arms control, which they so enthusiastically condemn.

Back to the independent–dependent variable relationship: The structurationist school of constructivism, orientated to the work of Anthony Giddens, takes the middle ground by constructing a dialectical relationship by which processes of Arms Control and processes of broader policy would mutually influence each other. As Arms Control has been conceptualized as a way to mitigate the security dilemma, its likely effects should be tangible there. Measures that reduce the ambiguity of intention and capabilities, and measures that, notably, reduce the capability for large-scale, speedy offensives should have strong positive impacts on mutual perception and should help to foster security cooperation on a broad scope (Peters, 1992). They give signals of the absence of aggressive intentions and thereby help overcome the fundamental uncertainty, which is at the heart of the security dilemma (Lamb, 1988, pp. 225–234). The “Gorbachev effect” on the West was exactly that.

Academic and Political Discourses

Academic and political discourses on arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation in general, as well as in specific political fields of action, are framed in four different perspectives: deterrence, defense, disarmament, and humanitarian discourses.2

The deterrence approach is dominated by nuclear weapons: The regulation of arms is seen as maintaining a stable deterrence relationship, understood as the mutually assured capability to strike back after a first strike, accompanied by measures that make a first strike as unlikely, unprovoked, and unattractive as possible. Consequently, nuclear weapons, seen as embodying the greatest deterrence value, enjoy a legitimate existence (e.g., Quinlan, 2009; Rühle, 2009; Tertrais, 2011), though the idea of conventional deterrence has also been pursued (Gerson, 2009; Mearsheimer, 1985). Where the deterrence discourse prevails, certain Arms Control measures fall into disregard. For example, de-alerting (putting strategic nuclear forces on low alert) or even de-mating the nuclear warheads from delivery vehicles, could be seen as destabilizing deterrence against a first strike. Shifting to a no first-use doctrine could be interpreted as opening one’s nuclear forces for a first strike conducted by non-nuclear means. Arms control in a deterrence discourse could even advocate, under certain circumstances, a build-up of nuclear forces if numbers have diminished below a perceived minimum that is seen as vulnerable to the combined offensive capabilities of potential enemies. The Chinese aversion against transparency is also stability-motivated, lest transparency could facilitate first-strike targeting against Bejing’s comparably small arsenal. Arms control is a servant of deterrence and is limited by the perceived requirements of the latter.

The defense discourse means the capability to react once deterrence fails and a ruthless enemy pursues conquest or extermination. Arms control, in this discourse, must recognize the need and serve the maintenance of a robust defense posture, which nowadays must inevitably include defense against missiles. At the conventional level, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty came closest to the ideal arms control agreement: By reducing, and establishing an exact balance for those five weapon systems needed for a large-scale, territory-grabbing, land attack, while not touching those weapons indispensable for defense (like air defense or anti-tank systems), it granted the two participating alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organization, a chance for successful conventional defense. This formula, however, is hardly applicable to the nuclear sector: deterrence can only be upheld through the offensive capability to strike even after having suffered an attack. Effective defenses could annihilate this capability for the party forced to strike second. It is hardly possible, therefore, to achieve conventional defense and nuclear deterrence on the basis of the same discourse, but only by combining the two. The defense discourse on Arms Control is structured in a way that Arms Control advocates must always fight an uphill battle against the argument of military utility/necessity. This burden of justification has hampered and frustrated advocates of international humanitarian law in the context of the Geneva Protocols and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) time and again (Mathur, 2012).

The disarmament discourse has a moral overtone in that weapons are seen as immoral and dangerous items that, whatever their military value, must be dismantled. They are framed in discourses of stigmatization (Shamai, 2015), in which the stigma is connected to their destructive power (WMD as threat to mankind), cruelty that causes unnecessary and lasting suffering (chemical weapons, incendiary weapons), and indiscriminate effects on civilians (all WMD, anti-personnel mines, cluster munitions) (Borrie, 2009; Price, 1998, 2007; Rosert, 2015, 2016). Stigma is not confined to WMD, but can be glued to other weapons systems as well; hence, weapons singled out for disarmament discourses are not dependent on the particular strategic value; to the contrary, part of the discourse consists of contesting this value to disempower arguments of military utility, which are usually deployed by opponents of the prohibition. Proponents of disarmament are even busy denying the utility of nuclear weapons for both warfare and deterrence (Harrington, 2009; Wilson, 2007, 2008). Today, disarmers rely strongly on humanitarian arguments; the disarmament and humanitarian discourses tend to amalgamate.

The humanitarian discourse asks for measures that serve best the goal of human security: the survival, well-being, and integrity of individuals, notably civilians; consequently, the weapons that have the most devastating effect and discriminate least between combatants and civilians are subject to the demand for elimination, notwithstanding their ascribed military value. It is noteworthy that today’s humanitarian discourse, manifested in a broad array of weapon types from anti-personnel mines to nuclear weapons, has evolved from the tradition of the legal discourse on the humanitarian law of war that prevailed into the 1990s. There, the basic formula was to weigh humanitarian concerns and military utility. The humanitarian discourse was thus dominated by the defense and deterrence discourses.

Today’s humanitarian Arms Control discourse gives priority to human concerns over military utility and links humanitarianism with disarmament, not with constraints on weapons use. Given the weight of military considerations in the attitudes and decision making of nation-states, this does not eliminate completely the weighting of military aspects. But, the burden of proof has shifted. In the old humanitarian law discourse, humanitarians had to argue against “military utility.” In the new discourse, opponents of prohibition have to argue for indispensability and irreplaceability of the weapons in question (Price, 1998, p. 632). As a consequence, in the nuclear weapons field, a majority of states are not satisfied anymore with small steps of arms reduction, transparency measures, and confidence building; rather, they push for a fast elimination of nuclear weapons, preceded by the conclusion of a nuclear weapons ban (Borrie, 2014; Kmentt, 2015).

The reason for the conservatism of the classical discourse on humanitarian law is not so much the past practices of the legalistic discourse of international humanitarian law (Mathur, 2012) as the result of the balance of political power, with great powers prevailing that wanted their utilitarian concerns (fighting and winning wars) to weigh heavily in the resulting treaties. The new discourse, in contrast, was created by a coalition of humanitarian and disarmament NGOs, and by smaller and middle powers that push their causes because they have more moral concerns than stakes in fighting and winning wars, or in the weapons needed for war or for deterrence (Borrie, 2014). The intrinsic nature of the discourses has not engendered the change, but shifts in coalitions and discursive power have (Mathur, 2012).

International Relations Theories and Arms Control

Arms Control does not completely discard self-help as the basis of national security, but entrusts a more or less significant piece of it to cooperation with potential enemies.3 For this reason, Arms Control is a difficult subject for (purist) realism and neorealism, but also for post-modernism. Realism and neo-realism expect states to pursue self-help as the only reliable basis for their national security. Cooperative security efforts admit that at least part of one’s own security is dependent on the partners’ compliance with agreed rules. Arms Control also requires a more relaxed attitude toward the problem of relative gains, the somehow unequal distribution of gains emerging from cooperation (Grieco, 1990). Since it is extremely difficult to define exact balances (numerical balances, for example, neglect differences in geopolitical situations, qualitative aspects, or intangibles like differences in training, etc.), relative gains are not only certain to occur, but are difficult to assess exactly. Even the notion of an exchange of renunciation, in exchange for a security guarantee, is implausible in the face of the security dilemma, as the guarantor might defeat or may mutate into the enemy of tomorrow. That Arms Control happens in reality is thus somehow puzzling. For post-modernists, Arms Control is only thinkable as a hegemonic project to maintain power differentials, not as a non-hegemonic common endeavor that serves all participants well. Both realists and post-modernists are only at ease with unilateral, hegemonic Arms Control imposed on others, notably on defeated states after war (for example, Iraq in 1991). For post-modernists, post-colonialists, and critical security scholars, non-proliferation is the paradigm of hegemonic Arms Control as an attempt to prevent others from obtaining the weapons that oneself possesses, and the conceding of the difference by middle powers like Canada or Sweden is only explainable by the discursive hegemony of the nuclear weapon states (Keeley, 1990). These critics are right to see roots of non-proliferation thinking in the racist ideology of the colonial era, parts of which have been transported into the 20th century and resonate still in the “rogue state” discourse, with the thrust that “civilized” states must keep “barbarians” at bay by maintaining the difference in military power (Barkawi & Laffey, 2006; Gusterson, 1999; Mathur, 2014).

This critique, however, has several weaknesses. It ignores that non-proliferation was deployed first with Germany and Japan, then already members of “the West,” as the primary targets,4 that the first victims of US export controls in the 1970s were advanced European states and Japan, and that controversies over the peaceful uses of nuclear energy for the first two decades of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) were between Western governments more than between the West and the non-aligned (Becker-Jacob et al., 2013); moreover, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), as a main organ of Western nuclear export controls, includes today Brazil, China, Mexico, Kazakhstan, and South Africa, non-Western members that are more than fig leafs. It is the United States that is pushing the membership of India and has terminated “nuclear apartheid” as far as India is concerned. Conversely, most European states have not joined the “rogue state” discourse, and many Western Arms Control and non-proliferation experts have never accepted the distinction between “reasonable” Northern nuclear weapon states and “irrational” Southerners. To the contrary, they have warned against the risks in South Asia because of the proven risks of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War, where only a lot of luck saved mankind from a global nuclear holocaust (e.g., Gavin, 2010; Müller, 2013a).5

It should also be noted that multilateral Arms Control treaties apart from the NPT have been negotiated in a North-South forum—such as the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions (BWC/CWC)—and that recent conventional disarmament treaties such as the Ottawa Convention (anti-personnel mines) and the Oslo Convention (cluster munitions) were initiated and pushed by coalitions of Western and Southern middle powers against the express will of Northern and Southern great powers (United States, Russia, China, India). The simple categorization of West against South is no less ideological and misleading than the traces of racist thinking in a limited part of the Arms Control discourse.

In contrast, Arms Control presents a solvable puzzle for rationalists with their emphasis on absolute gains and their acceptance of positive sum games and the information and transparency providing function of institutions that manage and administer Arms Control agreements (e.g., the classic Axelrod & Keohane, 1985). The exchange of renunciation and guarantee appears more plausible to a rationalist when the guarantee is embedded in institutions that render faithfulness more probable (like institutionalized alliances), or in deployment patterns that make use of armed forces in response to an attack more likely (e.g., tripwire-type deployment). Rationalist liberal institutionalism finds good empirical confirmation in Arms Control regimes. Indeed, most agreements are endowed with organizations that serve as channels for communication, arenas for sorting out behavioral ambiguities of members and clarifying ambivalences in the language of prescriptions and prohibitions, and supply transparency by reporting and verification and can, after all, take decisions. Not only multilateral treaties have such organizations (like the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] working for the NPT or the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW] working for the CWC), but even the bilateral agreements between the United States and Russia are usually managed by bilateral standing commissions.

Since Arms Control agreements are built on negotiated and agreed norms in most cases, the whole area presents a preferred playing field for constructivists. Arms Control regimes provide solid normative frameworks that reduce uncertainty, create clear standards for distinguishing right and wrong behavior, install organizations for verifying and assessing compliance, or enact rules for national verification and joint commissions for solving compliance disputes in bilateral agreements. If the security dilemma is, for constructivists, “what states make of it,” then Arms Control is a powerful instrument to reconstruct interstate security relations by the incremental change of the alter ego relationship within a normative framework that facilitates and moves the convergence of their views while simultaneously creating trust. The normative framework empowers agents to achieve transformative success rather than to succumb to alleged determining forces.

It is within the constructivist paradigm as well that feminist studies have made their most succinct contribution to this field. Feminists have uncovered the roots of much of the heavily challenged conservatism of mainstream arms control—the deterrence and defense discourses—in the sustained masculine culture of arms. This conservatism is most visible in the attempts to uphold the system of nuclear deterrence by stabilizing it through arms control measures. Feminists point to the different ethical perspectives informing humanitarian arms control, which are much closer to the female-typical “ethics of care,” and to the roles of women in post-civil war processes of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) (Cohn, Hill, & Ruddick, 2010).

As this discussion shows, it is largely Western academia that is leading the theoretical and conceptual discussion. Non-Western scholarship gives nuances and accents: defending particular national policies in academic terms and frequently relating to Western approaches (Chinese and Russian authors); post-colonial criticism emphasizing injustices, and arguing in the frames of the disarmament and humanitarian discourses (e.g., South African, Indian, Latin American authors, the latter mostly in a way that emphasizes humanitarian law) (for good overviews cf. Hashmi & Lee, 2004; Krause, 1999). The hegemony, for better or worse, still rests with the West.

Reasons of Success and Failure

Sometime efforts to install Arms Control regimes succeed and sometime they fail (with success or failure defined as agreements achieved and maintained versus not achieved or abandoned). Why this variation?

Trivially, good or improving political relations between states provide an environment conducive for arms control. “Extrinsic shocks”—unexpected political events or dramatic changes in international constellations like the Cuban missile crisis, the Indian nuclear test of 1974, or the sudden end of the Cold War—can create windows for opportunity as well as a motivational impulse to try to use Arms Control as a tool to deal productively with the new situation (Müller, Fey, & Rauch, 2013). In addition, technology, domestic structures and politics, leadership, psychology, perception, ideology, and learning have been identified and tried as candidates for being independent variables that cause governments to engage in Arms Control activities as identified by classical assessments (Blacker & Duffy, 1984; Carnesale & Haass, 1987; Carter, 1989; George, 1988a; Lamb, 1988).

Robert Jervis has maintained that Arms Control is more likely to succeed when defensive military technology has the upper hand, but is rarely successful when offensive technology is superior (Jervis, 1978). This hypothesis is not completely convincing. Whether a technology is defensive or offensive is often a matter of operational mode, not of intrinsic characteristics. The tank, prototype of the offensive, was used in defensive ways in von Manstein’s mobile defensive at the Eastern front after the German defeat at Stalingrad, and by Iraq against Iranian counteroffensives in the Gulf war of the eighties—the Iraqis dug their tanks into the sand and used them as fixed artillery! Throughout the nuclear age, offense has had the upper hand, and Arms Control has gone through highs and lows, this constant condition notwithstanding. The objective of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty was exactly to give defense the upper hand through Arms Control, as it limited the combination of weapons systems needed for a blitzkrieg offensive. A look at current technological developments shows the deep ambivalence of technological developments, some of which would help Arms Control (notably by enhancing verification possibilities), while some others are creating considerable challenges (Rosert, Becker-Jakob, Franceschini, & Schaper, 2013; see also the section “Future Challenges for Arms Control Research and Practice”).

Joseph S. Nye succinctly formulated the interplay between structural factors—the military balance in the area of control—and political preferences: “Arms control agreements were concluded only when neither side had an appreciable advantage; agreements were not reached when either side had a strong preference for development of a new weapon” (Nye, 1989, p. 44). This implies that subjective factors such as perceptions, worldviews, ideology, etc., play a major role. During the Cold War, enemy images, ideology, inferiority and superiority complexes, and misperceptions had a powerful influence on how nuclear weapons, deterrence, and Arms Control were perceived (Lebow & Stein, 1994, pp. 348–368). It should be noted, however, that the factor asymmetry (see also Freedman, 1982, pp. 46–48; Roberts, 1989, p. 109) has proven not to be determining: Both the nuclear and the conventional balance in Europe were asymmetric when Gorbachev took power. Yet the Soviet Union accepted significantly larger cuts in its own forces in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) and the CFE Treaties, overruling the factor asymmetry, for the sake of enhancing stability and improving political relations.

Gorbachev was exceptional, but the impact of leader personality can be found in other instances as well. The Nixon/Kissinger team was instrumental in getting strategic nuclear arms control on track: Kissinger had studied the subject thoroughly and was conceptually strong. Nixon had the reputation as a hard liner and could thus turn skeptical senators around. The same is true for President Ronald Reagan, a man very conscious of the monstrous destructiveness of nuclear weapons, who embraced the Gorbachev opportunity when it came along, despite his reputation as an arch-conservative cold warrior. Thus, agency can reconstruct structure, at least as far as the influence of the military balance is concerned. This makes leader psychology an important factor in the arms control game (Hymans, 2006).

The question of political preferences directs attention to political elites and leaders. It has been shown that inward-looking, authoritarian elites as well as nationalistic leaders tend to be averse to subjecting to multilateral constraints such as those of the NPT and are rather inclined to seek unilateral enhancement of their self-help capabilities, in extremis nuclear weapons. The more elites are willing to integrate into the world and the more open-minded leaders are, the higher the chances are that they will develop preferences for Arms Control (Hymans, 2006; Solingen, 2007).

Conversely, when parochial attitudes are superseded by joint threat perceptions and ideas of common security, chances for successful negotiations grow: common knowledge is generally thought to be conducive to achieving agreement, and most of the time this seems to be true for Arms Control. Occasionally, however, as a study of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) Treaty has shown, mutual misperception might help achieve results (Grynaviski, 2010). However, common knowledge might create the frame in which Arms Control can progress. The emergence of the nuclear taboo, the strong unwritten norm that nuclear weapons must not be used, was decisively influenced by international public opinion and public preferences in the United States (Tannenwald, 2007). The taboo, in turn, facilitated nuclear Arms Control by devaluing the operative value of nuclear weapons in the eyes of decision makers (Bundy, 1988).

Domestic structures play an essential role not only as permissive, supporting, impeding, or preventing conditions for governments to negotiate Arms Control agreements and to get them ratified, but also for such regimes to be robust over time (Sims, 2002). Hymans has developed the thesis that nuclear weapons acquisition becomes all the more difficult the more veto players are present in a country due to an increasing number of institutions involved in nuclear decision making (Hymans, 2011); this proposition can be generalized across other fields of weapon acquisition. This would indicate that multilateral Arms Control regimes become more stable the more states parties dispose of differentiated research and industrial structures and a pluralistic political power structure.

The question of whether democracy inclines governments particularly to pursue Arms Control as a preferred security strategy has led to mixed results. While many democracies prefer security cooperation to an uncontrolled arms race, some hold such a deep distrust of autocratic opponents that they are reluctant to seek security cooperation, pose high demands on verification that could present a barrier to agreement, or adopt compensatory measures for concessions made, frequently to pacify domestic critics (Becker, Müller, & Wisotzki, 2008; Müller & Becker, 2008). The presence of many veto players, in this context, can make Arms Control more difficult.

Conservatives have maintained that Arms Control is dangerous for democracies because they become lulled by cooperative illusions and thus lose the necessary determination to keep their defense up and to retaliate for non-compliance by notoriously cheating autocracies (Gray, 1990; Wallop & Codevilla, 1987). This prediction is wrong: The United States insisted for so long on the violation of the ABM Treaty by the Soviets (the illegal radar near Krasnoyarsk) that the Gorbachev government admitted and corrected its non-compliance. Likewise, the United States and the EU sanctioned Iran’s violation of the NPT until Iran agreed to vast concessions in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (United Nations Security Council, 2015).

The proposition that the domestic structure undergirding Arms Control is the dependent variable of the international environment is not tenable even if confined to conventional Arms Control; elaborating this thesis, Fatton (2016) argues that a harsh environment makes leaders dependent on the military; the military holds strong enemy images and works on worst case assumptions, and therefore opposes principally conventional Arms Control. First, the general assumption about military attitudes is not proven. During the first Reagan Administration, the Navy leadership prevented Secretary of Defense Weinberger from terminating the Agreement on Incidents on the High Seas because the admirals found that the confidence-building effects of regular meetings with their Soviet peers was enhancing maritime security (Lynn-Jones, 1988, pp. 497–499).

The two cases Fatton presents—Japan’s cancellation of the Washington Naval Treaty in 1936 and Putin’s cancellation of Russian CFE membership in 2011—point rather in the opposite direction of the causal arrow. In both cases, it was a change in domestic leadership that laid the basis for change. After the economic crisis starting in 1927, the Japanese party system weakened while the influence of nationalist forces, the military included, grew. In 1932, the party system collapsed. The new leadership, led by the military, took increasingly aggressive steps to which the United States reacted. Japanese withdrawal from the Washington Treaty was thus caused by leadership shifts in Japan, and US reactions were a consequence of this shift. Likewise, Russian withdrawal from the CFE Treaty was a consequence of a power shift in Moscow favoring more nationalist forces, for which Putin was the prototypical representative. The environment was not turning threatening to Moscow, but Russian demands to the West were continuously ignored and Russian pride repeatedly frustrated. It was the nationalism and geopolitical ambition of the political leadership to restore Russia as a great power that led consequently to a retreat from conventional Arms Control, not the biases of the military. Domestic structure was much more instrumental in shaping the international environment in these two cases than vice versa. It is also noteworthy that elements of conventional Arms Control like the Vienna documents and the Open Sky Treaty survived the cooling of the political climate.6

Research on small arms regulation supports the view that domestic factors influence the possibility of achieving international agreements: producer interests and the need of autocracies to procure arms for domestic repression stand against international arms trade rules. High homicide rates and instability, due to an abundance of small arms and weak regulatory capacity on the one hand, and moral concerns about the effects of small arms abroad on the other hand, support regulatory efforts. The variety of preferences in the negotiations so far have admitted only weak regulatory regimes (Efrat, 2010).

The last prominent independent variable with supposed causal effect on Arms Control, learning, is discussed further below. Returning to the political conditions that constrain or promote the chances for Arms Control, one has to be aware that one condition exists permanently: The security interdependence that prevents even great powers from ensuring their survival and integrity without some cooperation from their rivals (George, 1988a). Actors sometimes misperceive this constellation and sometimes understand it well—but the condition stays and is likely to be grasped by the political actors once in a while.

Stability and Change

Arms Control: Conservative or Transformative?

As the “impact” discussion indicated, Arms Control can be looked at from two opposite perspectives concerning stability and change. Arms control aims at stability; critical security approaches have thus labeled arms control as a conservative, status-quo orientated strategy (Krause & Cooper, 2011; Krause & Latham, 1998). This school has also ascribed certain attributes of the concept to Western culture, thereby reifying the West as completely American without accounting for the considerable differences within the West (which shows, for example, in the related EU strategies [EU, 2003a, 2003b, 2016]. In this spirit, critical scholars have labeled as Western such attributes as the “necessity of deterrence,” a “preference for one’s own preponderance,” and a “focus on proliferation” as if the Soviet Union had not shown the same traits all throughout the Cold War, and as if Russia had not followed the Soviet predecessor in this respect as well.

But there is also a transformational perspective: Arms Control as a vehicle for inducing, accompanying, and reinforcing a fundamental redefinition of the relationship between two or more states; the template for this approach is found, as will be discussed later, in the years from 1985 to 1992, when the Cold War dissolved. Naturally, the concept of disarmament shows the greatest affinity to the transformational approaches.

This transformational perspective leaves the dogmatic connection between arms control and stability behind. Stability by arms control is itself an instrument to foster dynamic change, just as homeostasis in young organisms is the condition for dynamic growth. This perspective opens the broader view on the relation of Arms Control and historical time. A reading of the history of arms control results in three models to conceive this relationship.

Arms Control Through Time: Three Models

The first model corresponds to the enlightenment intuition of steady progress: Arms Control, once started, will create islands of cooperation in a still formidable sea of self-help. But successful agreements have an impact beyond technical constraints or limited cooperation gains. The factor of learning, enabled by agreements and their institutional settings, changes the relationship between former rivals and antagonists incrementally, but potentially profoundly (Nye, 1989). New information mitigates the security dilemma, as both capabilities and intentions of the partner become better understood and more predictable. Admitting transparency on agreed level of forces, which reduce opportunities and incentives to attack first—whether conventional or nuclear—diminish the image of the enemy as a nefarious and implacable antagonist poised to devour neighbors and enemies. Arms Control works as a conduit for reassurance; the reassured party imputes more benevolent intentions on its opposite. Institutional settings—domestic, bilateral, and multilateral—create new bureaucratic routines, produce more information, help to solve problems of ambiguity and suspicions of non-compliance, and inculcate cooperative practices in the daily work of decision makers and bureaucrats.

Moreover, successful Arms Control agreements set incentives to try more daring ones. In the process, states might redefine their own security interests. Of course, Arms Control is not able to drive this process alone. Rather, its political effects help to encourage steps in other areas of the conflicting relationship, and such steps (and their domestic repercussions) in turn stimulate new efforts in Arms Control. Throughout this development, increasing transnational communities (epistemic and otherwise) connect the national discourses of the participating countries by importing common knowledge, serving as interpreters of the “other’s” views and actions, and working as advocates of cooperation (Nye, 1987, 1989) The Gorbachev years of 1985 to 1991 provide an impressive example for this dynamic. In the best case, it might turn islands of cooperation into a continent (Evangelista, 1999; Risse, 2000).

The second model is a significant modification of the first one. It preserves the long-term vision of a cooperative world, but (informed by the historical experiences of the last 60 years) understands the Arms Control process as a series of waves, each of which leaves the world in a more cooperative state than the previous one: a pure self-help system gives way to an arms-control driving détente constellation, followed by a new political ice age in which, however, some of the Arms Control achievements of the détente period survive. A second Arms Control wave, followed by another ice age ensues, with again a few new lasting gains for cooperative security, and so on.

This model accounts for the multifactorial political environment in which Arms Control has to operate. Power shifts among nations, national revolutions, or domestic polarization, can replace elites well socialized into the concepts and practices of Arms Control with nationalist, unilateralist, and supremacist elites, who see the only way to security and status in absolute superiority or even aggression and conquest. This account of the process toward more cooperation through ups and downs reflects better the experiences since 1960.

A tentative success after the Cuban missile crisis, the Partial Test Ban Treaty, was followed by five years of stagnation, caused by the toppling of Khrushchev in Moscow, alienation through the Vietnam War, and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The conclusion of the negotiations on the NPT toward the end of 1968 opened the first wave of Arms Control in the period of détente. After the—supposedly hawkish—presidency of Richard Nixon had installed itself, strategic arms negotiations started quickly. The next decade saw four agreements of strategic nuclear arms, two on testing, two multilateral treaties to prohibit biological and environmental weapons, and a couple of confidence-building measures to avoid severe crises between the superpowers, plus those in the context of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, the “Helsinki Document”). However, this period came to a halt at the end of the decade when conservative concerns about perceived growing Soviet nuclear superiority and cheating, and Soviet inroads in the developing world produced a climate no longer conducive to Arms Control—SALT II remained observed by the two parties, but unratified.

The early Reagan years were confrontational, with unfettered armament, and token Arms Control talks to pacify a concerned Western public on both sides of the Atlantic. Gorbachev’s ascendancy to power changed the situation (Arnett, 1990; Evangelista, 1999). Starting with new CSCE confidence-building measures in 1986 (the “Stockholm Document,” later dramatically enhanced by the series of “Vienna Documents”), a cascade of bilateral (INF Treaty, START I, START II), multilateral regional (CFE Treaty and the unprecedented Open Sky Treaty, which grants the parties mutual information-gathering overflight rights), and multilateral global (Chemical Weapons Convention, Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel land mines, and the indefinite extension of the NPT) measures followed in close sequence. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was the last hurrah, but failed to attract the necessary “advice and consent” in the US Senate, which was already dominated by arch-conservative forces led by Senator Jesse Helms, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relation Committee. From 1997 on, the political climate cooled down.

Arms Control froze with the George W. Bush administration. The Moscow Treaty on strategic nuclear arms—a treaty without specifications, with a termination date of 2012 and no verification—was the only achievement, neutralized through the far more weighty abrogation of the ABM-Treaty by the Bush administration, which led to the prompt abrogation of START II by Russia, followed by Moscow’s withdrawal from the CFE Treaty; the multilateral Oslo Convention banning cluster munitions succeeded only because the United States, opposed to this agreement, did not possess a veto position. Obama’s revival of Arms Control yielded the New START Treaty, the agreement for the reduction of weapons-grade plutonium with Russia, and the Arms Trade Treaty, in an all too brief period of new détente that ended at the latest with the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014.

The notion of waves has a lot of empirical evidence to support it. One interesting indicator is the titles of writings on the subject that have appeared over time. A Farewell to Arms Control? (Young, 1972), “Arms Control: The Possibility of a Second Coming” (Freedman,1982), “Farewell to Arms Control?” again (Nye, 1986), “The Death of Arms Control” (Sullivan, 1987), The Future of Arms Control (Ball & Mack, 1987), “The Folly of Arms Control” (Schell, 2000),7 and “The Rise and Fall of Arms Control” (Bohlen, 2005) all indicate a shifting between the highs and lows of the theme. It also indicates that experts did not always agree on whether they were facing a high or a low. Young`s book was written during the years of the first big Arms Control wave. Freedman’s “second coming” was authored in the first years of the Reagan Administration’s dark years for Arms Control. Nye’s “Farewell” and Sullivan’s “Death,” written from quite different positions, appeared when Gorbachev moved Arms Control on its path of greatest success, as acknowledged by the more optimistic Nye. Curiously, “The Death of Deterrence” (Dando & Rogers, 1984) falls between the “second coming” and the “death” of Arms Control.

That these waves lead toward ever-increased security cooperation in a spiral-shaped process, however, is not self–evident. Consequently, the third model drafts a circular process. Progress is only temporary and will be overtaken by the eternal, harsh forces of the international power struggle. Of course, this is the view of the more pessimistic version of realism: Arms Control ebbs and floods alternate, but Arms Control achievements are fully or almost fully lost in each ice age: “progress” does not hold. Security cooperation and its legal and institutional sediments are a marginal phenomenon, dependent on temporary interest constellations. When interests shift, or when a power shift changes the hierarchy of the international system, the achievements of the past period will erode or explode, and the system returns to the dangerous competition, including its military aspects, which is its natural state (Mearsheimer, 1995; see also Mearsheimer, 2001 for the theoretical background).

Among the three models, the spiral model has most to show empirically. As Joseph Nye (1987, 1989) observed already in 1987, even the icy early 1980s left much of the Arms Control achievements intact, such as the NPT, naval confidence-building measures, and the CSCE process with its confidence-building (the European allies prevailed over US preferences). During the George W. Bush years, NPT, CWC, and BWC continued (the latter one after heroic rescue activities by the Europeans), the mutual reductions pursuant to the Moscow Treaty took place, the INF Treaty remained in force, as did CSCE confidence building, and even the Open Sky Treaty. The same applies to all global multilateral treaties. A second observation: Phil Farley counted, in his contribution to probably the best book on Arms Control that has ever been written, eight negotiations that had failed before 1987 (Farley, 1988, pp. 620, 627–629). During the 28 years that have since passed, six of these eight have been successfully concluded.8 Up to now, the spiral model appears to hold, despite setbacks in the early 1980s, the years of the George W. Bush Administration, or the present impasse; thus, the hopeful Kantian vision of ever-closer security cooperation is still on the table.

Justice and Emotions in Arms Control Policy

As in international relations in general, theories grounded in rationality and pursuing different logics—realism, rationalism, constructivism, and institutionalism—reign in arms control. Yet a wave of research and theoretical discussion in the last few years has produced evidence that this covers only a part of the complex of human motivations for action and thus for political behavior. That emotions matter is obvious for everybody who notes the last three decades of progress in neuroscience, evolutionary biology, development psychology, or experimental economics: emotions are connected to a “moral sense,” and they are involved in all human decision making. Consequently, they are involved in all politics as well (Bleiker & Hutchison, 2014; Evans & Cruse, 2004; Monroe, Martin, & Ghosh, 2009). An essential part of the moral disposition is a keen sensitivity for justice and fairness. This disposition is not unbiased. It is strongest for the self’s individual justice claims, fairly strong for justice claims by one’s own “in-group,” and still measurable for empathy with the justice claims of strangers (individuals or groups). It is a solid proposition that justice issues are present across all political fields (as philosophers and political theorists have maintained since ancient times) (Druckman & Müller, 2014; Welch, 1993). A final look is therefore appropriate for this article, at the role of justice and emotions in the security relationships of states.

Like all politics, Arms Control involves issues of justice: the distribution of values held highly by actors, such as security and power (very much tangible in the field of non-proliferation with its unequal distribution of rights and obligations), the distribution of chances to participate in decision making, and the granting of recognition as an actor of equal rights and distinction. As critical security scholars rightly point out, present inequalities that reflect the historical path taken since the imperialist era are mirrored in aspects of Arms Control agreements, most prominently in the NPT. But they are also apparent in other regimes that contain the dual-use problematique between civilian and military or legitimate and illegitimate uses of traded goods related to the subject matter of the agreement; in this is context, because these inequalities are inscribed into export control regimes that exclude the majority of states (Mathur, 2014). Arms Control negotiations are ripe with justice claims, accusations of injustice, and consequently suffer frequently a stalemate or failure because of incompatible justice demands. At the same time, emotions play a key role in any field of politics. Lack of satisfied justice claims creates frustration and ensuing resentment and even aggressiveness (cf. Müller & Wunderlich, 2013).

Jeffrey Knopf has constructed a competitive test for comparing the plausibility of a rationalist-institutionalist and a norm-oriented constructivist hypothesis for the support of strong nonproliferation tools and support for enforcement in the NPT: If the security concerns related to regional proliferation were the decisive reason for states to support such measures, such support should be strongest in the proliferation-ridden Middle East and Asia and less strong in proliferation-safe Europe, while a justice-centered hypothesis would appear stronger if developing countries (i.e., the Middle East and Asia) would refuse such measures because of the NPT’s inequalities, while developed countries (i.e., Europe) would be strong supporters (Knopf, 2012/2013, p. 129). Empirical findings speak clearly for the second hypothesis and thereby provide a strong indication that, in Arms Control, justice matters, notably in compliance behavior (Becker-Jakob, Müller, & Seidler-Dieckmann, 2013; Choubey, 2008; Fey, Melamud, & Müller, 2014; Potter & Mukhatzanova, 2012; Tannenwald, 2013; Wisotzki, 2013).

Besides the justice/emotion complex, existential fear is a relevant emotion involved in Arms Control, notably between warring parties, rivals in enduring conflict after repeated wars, and generally in the field of weapons of mass destruction. Fear is visible in the utterances of both promoters and opponents of Arms Control. The peace movement in Europe and the freeze movement in the United States during the early 1980s were largely motivated by the acute concern about the imminent risk of nuclear war (Nye, 1986; Risse-Kappen, 1988) or “nuclear anxiety” (Sauer, 2016, pp. 105–172). Many opponents of Arms Control are obsessed with a paranoid fear of the supposed enemy. They ascribed evil intentions to the Soviet Union even when it was already visible that Gorbachev pursued a course of rapprochement and was ready to sacrifice basic principles of Soviet military doctrine (e.g., Gray, 1990; Wallop & Codevilla, 1987; and see critical: Lebow & Stein, 1994). When the Soviet threat receded, the same deadly evilness was projected on the rogue states, culminating in the constitution of the “axis of evil” by President George W. Bush (Bush, 2002). Also, emotional beliefs may influence leaders’ inclinations to accept non-proliferation or to pursue proliferation (Hymans, 2006).

Empathy and trust are indispensable ingredients in any successful Arms Control process, and indeed “confidence-building measures,” a central instrument of Arms Control reflect this need to elicit trust as a basis for successful security cooperation.

Conclusions: State and Non-State Level

This article has focused on the concept of Arms Control as an instrument to reduce the risk of war among states. This focus results from the concern that states, while far from being the only actors in violent interactions, remain the most powerful, most dangerous, and potentially most destructive ones; reasonable efforts to diminish the risks of conflagration are thus worth the candle.

However, this does not mean that other violent processes of an intrastate or transnational kind and their actors and instruments must not be studied. Introducing a collection of essays on this subject from the perspective of critical security studies, Neil Cooper and David Mutimer (2011) have proposed to widen the scope of classical Arms Control into a new paradigm, “Controlling the Means of Violence,” in which the main objectives of classical arms control are reframed. According to these authors, Arms Control should reduce the likelihood that the instruments of armed violence are used against individuals, communities, or states. Arms Control should reduce the effects of armed violence, should it be employed. And Arms Control should reduce the resources invested in the development, acquisition, and deployment of the instruments of armed violence (Cooper & Mutimer, 2011, p. 11).

This is an ambitious agenda, but one that reflects the current field of organized violence in a comprehensive way. It continues to make sense to pay particular attention to Arms Control that targets interstate violence as a subfield, with its own dynamics, but that influences, and is influenced by, processes in the wider scope addressed by Cooper and Mutimer.

Arms Control Makes Sense

In the age of security interdependence, security cooperation with a focus on Arms Control makes strategic sense to avoid the fatal consequences of unilateralism-driven escalation spirals. So far, Arms Control has indeed been an enlightenment project (Walker, 2007), a gallant effort to tame the dynamic forces of a still widely anarchic system of states through the use of political reason.

The record shows how the work was done largely by the forces emphasized by constructivism: the interplay between increasing normative structures and the framing of interests, values, and perceptions on the side of “agents,” the change of relations among agents through common practices leading to shared views and increased trust. It is quite possible that without these developments, mankind could have lived through a nuclear war in the last half century.

At the same time, we have seen more than once how non-initiated political forces broke away, like the horsemen in antiquity and the middle ages, from the domestic structures of important states, from the planes of Central Asia to challenge the order in East Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Time and again forces like neo-conservative ideologues, Russian nationalists, or Iranian Shiite zealots challenged norms, rules, and institutions built with much labor and care over decades. In this struggle between the forces of reason and the robust irrational fighters for unilateral gains, the jury is still out—though the long-term analysis at present would still give the prize to predictions for normative growth. In the end, there are no natural determinants for the process. Historians would point us to leadership, virtue, contingency, and good luck—all these forces are in the play. For all well identified “independent variables,” success and failure depend on agency, and agency still presents a high degree of volatility and unpredictability.

Future Challenges for Arms Control Research and Practice

Studies of interstate Arms Control will have to cope with crucial real world developments, and—academically—with crucial developments in other academic faculties that impact heavily on the United States, as indicated in the last section.

Arms Control is heavily affected by the consequences of a global power shift, including the rise of powers like China and India. There will be a new focus in the European theater, where many, but not all of the gains of the 1990s have been lost to the renewed tensions between Russia and the West, where the brandishing of nuclear weapons has become an element of Russian deterrence strategy, contrary to the post-Cuban crisis period of the Cold War, and where new approaches are needed to re-stabilize the situation. Other regional conflict situations, which are even worse because of even less cooperative security institutions, are East/Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.

Military-technological developments that are under way or on the horizon, and that present risks much less tangible than the weapon systems of the Cold War, pose grave challenges to cooperative security. These are cyberthreats, biosecurity, 3-D-printer-triggered proliferation, lethal autonomous weapon systems, and future weapons based on nanotechnology. The operational mode of hybrid warfare and the digital war, using fake news and outright lies, pose additional challenges to known modes of confidence building. Present concepts of arms control offer no leverage on these problems; a lot of creativity will be required to fill this gap.

The significantly increased complexity that this new constellation produces makes the search for a common denominator for win-win solutions much more difficult. It will hardly be possible in the future to conduct bilateral nuclear Arms Control restricted to a single item—strategic nuclear warheads. Rather, conventional long-range attack options (sea-launched cruise missiles, conventionally armed ICBMs, hypersonic glide vehicles), missile defenses, and sub-strategic nuclear arms, as well as the smaller nuclear powers, all have to be involved in some way (Pifer & O’Hanlon, 2012). This makes the tasks of negotiators much more difficult and ratification of treaties in the US Senate even more uncertain.

Arms control research must invest more effort for integrating recent findings on the morality of humans and the deep ambivalence of in-group/out-group dynamics, which this morality produces. This task includes understanding the meaning of justice in political conflict. We can already note the proven ambivalence of justice, which presents a way for exacerbating as well as solving conflicts. In this context, Arms Control research must account for the emotional side of humans, which is not just a deviation of a “normal” rationalist ideal, but is part and parcel of our genetic inheritance and an indispensable element of all decisions that we make.

This menu contains enough juicy dishes to preoccupy scholars of Arms Control for the lifetime of this edition of the encyclopedia. Since security interdependence will continue to defy attempts to ensure state security unilaterally and without cooperation across the frontlines of political conflict, the sentence of Adam Roberts, written in 1989, still holds: “Arms control should properly be seen as a permanent part of the practice of international relations” (Roberts, 1989, p. 105).


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (1.) Elizabeth Young left no uncertainty: “Indeed most of these policies and negotiations have had about as much bearing on the life of nations as a Mafioso’s crossing himself as he loads his gun, has on his hopes of heaven” (Young, 1972, p. 14).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (2.) I prefer this distinction to Nick Ritchie’s triad trait of “surface devaluing,” “deep devaluing,” and “delegitimizing” because of greater precision (Ritchie, 2014).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (3.) For an elaborate discussion of the treatment of security cooperation, notably arms control, in various theories of international relations, see Müller (2013a, 2013b).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (4.) The term barbarism has been used against no country as frequently as against Nazi Germany, and rightly so.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (5.) By the way, sometimes the concerns about intentions of mentality of certain leaders might be justified (see, e.g., Brands & Palkki, 2011).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (6.) Curiously, Fatton does not note that his description of Gorbachev’s role in initiating successful conventional Arms Control contradicts his own hypothesis: Gorbachev came to power in a moment of strong US-Soviet tensions. According to Fatton, this should have led to a strong influence of the military on the civilian leadership, with the effect of preventing Arms Control. Instead, the civilian leadership pushed the most significant conventional Arms Control treaty ever.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (7.) Schell did not mean to call Arms Control a “folly,” but he maintained that policies that let Arms Control decline into a crisis at the end of the 1990s constituted a folly.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (8.) CTBT, Arms Trade Treaty, CFE, OSCE, START, CWC.