Spring 2020

What History Can Teach

James Cameron

Most analyses of arms control during the Cold War focus on its role in maintaining strategic stability between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, history shows that the superpowers’ search for strategic stability is insufficient to explain the roots and course of negotiations. This essay argues that arms control was used as one tool in a broader strategy of war prevention, designed to contain a series of challenges to U.S. and Soviet dominance of the international system that both sides worried could upset bipolarity and increase the chances of conflict between them. At the same time, U.S. policy-makers balanced this joint superpower interest with Washington’s extended deterrent commitment to its allies, which ultimately upheld the integrity of the system as a whole. The essay concludes that today’s leaders should integrate arms control into a more comprehensive strategy of political accommodation fit for twenty-first-century conditions.

James Cameron is a Research Associate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and an affiliate of the Oslo Nuclear Project at the University of Oslo. He is the author of The Double Game: The Demise of America’s First Missile Defense System and the Rise of Strategic Arms Limitation (2018).

In the winter of 1985, Thomas Schelling was unhappy. Surveying the state of arms control negotiations in an article published in Foreign Affairs, Schelling argued that the enterprise had “gone off the tracks” since its heyday in the early 1970s, diverging from his and many other arms control theorists’ understanding of its basic aim: to ensure strategic stability between the superpowers. The 1972 Interim Agreement on Strategic Offensive Arms and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty had fit well with Schelling’s vision of arms control: the former froze both sides at approximate parity in intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers, making a disarming first strike extremely difficult, if not impossible; the latter banned nationwide missile defense systems, meaning that neither side could build an effective defense of its homeland, leaving both the United States and the Soviet Union open to a devastating retaliatory second strike if either sought to attack the other. Fitting with much existing arms control theory and administration rhetoric in support of the SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitations Talks) agreements, this strategic stability based on both sides’ vulnerability to a massive retaliatory attack became seen as the lodestar of superpower talks, establishing itself as a central point of contention in an increasingly polarized debate between supporters and opponents of arms control over subsequent decades.

Yet since 1972, the effort to limit arms had not lived up to Schelling’s early hopes. Arms control had gone off the rails, according to the strategist, because it had neglected the greatest contemporary threat to strategic stability: the race in technology. While Washington and Moscow argued over numbers of weapons, they had failed to tackle destabilizing developments such as “warheads per target point, readiness, speed of delivery, accuracy or recallability after launch,” which had the potential to endanger Schelling’s vision by making a disarming first strike theoretically more feasible. As several scholars have recently reminded us, this technological arms race between Washington and Moscow continued throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. If strategic stability was the fundamental aim of talks–as both advocates and critics of the process generally assumed–then this was a strange outcome indeed.

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