Spring 2020

Why Arms Control?

Jon Brook Wolfsthal

America survived the nuclear age through a complex combination of diplomatic and military decisions, and a good deal of luck. One of the tools that proved its value in both reducing the risks of nuclear use and setting rules for the ongoing nuclear competition were negotiated, legally binding, and verified arms control agreements. Such pacts between the United States and the Soviet Union arguably prevented the nuclear arms racing from getting worse and helped both sides climb off the Cold War nuclear precipice. Several important agreements remain in place between the United States and Russia, to the benefit of both states. Arms control is under threat, however, from domestic forces in the United States and from Russian actions that range from treaty violations to the broader weaponization of risk. But arms control can and should play a useful role in reducing the risk of nuclear war and forging a new agreement between Moscow and Washington on the new rules of the nuclear road.

Jon Brook Wolfsthal is the Senior Advisor to Global Zero and Director of the Nuclear Crisis Group. He served from 2014 to 2017 as the Senior Director on the National Security Council for Arms Control and Nonproliferation and as Special Assistant to the President of the United States. He has served in the U.S. government in a variety of positions, including as a Foreign Affairs Officer at the U.S. Department of Energy and as Special Advisor to Vice President Joseph Biden for Nuclear Security. He is the author of Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction (with Joseph Cirincione and Miriam Rajkumar, 2002). 

Nuclear arms control agreements that effectively constrain an opponent’s capabilities in exchange for some form of American constraint can benefit American security and the security of its allies. Specifically, bilateral nuclear arms control agreements between the United States and the Russian Federation and between the United States and other nuclear-weapon states, and eventually broader multilateral arrangements, have the potential to enhance American security and global stability by reducing the risks of nuclear use and avoiding the dangers associated with arms racing and arms race instability. Such agreements have in the past reduced the risks of nuclear conflict, shaped and limited areas of nuclear competition, and tailored the global landscape in ways that benefitted global and American security.

Reaching such agreements, and making them effectively verifiable, takes time, leadership, political commitment, clear goals, and political compromise: commodities currently in short supply in the United States. However, this state of affairs is far from permanent and it remains likely that a future president may pursue such negotiated agreements.

Arms control agreements are far from perfect, but the same is true of deterrence, reassurance, military planning, and, of course, armed conflict. All of these elements of American nuclear statecraft entail risks. Some arms control agreements have produced major security wins for the United States, while others never entered into force or collapsed due to neglect or outright violations. Even in the wake of an imperfect record, arms control can be used in the future to improve U.S.-Russian nuclear stability and global security. Rejecting the idea of arms control out of hand due to past failures or ideological opposition is dangerous: it risks depriving security officials of a proven method for addressing both emerging and uncontrolled areas of military competition. Just as it would be folly to support arms control blindly without a clear strategy and well-crafted agreements, it is folly to reject arms control when it can produce real benefits. 

. . .

To read this essay or subscribe to Dædalus, visit the Dædalus access page
Access now