Arms Control and Disarmament

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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One of the major efforts to preserve international peace and security in the twenty-first century has been to control or limit the number of weapons and the ways in which weapons can be used. Two different means to achieve this goal have been disarmament and arms control. Disarmament is the reduction of the number of weapons and troops maintained by a state. Arms control refers to treaties made between potential adversaries that reduce the likelihood and scope of war, usually imposing limitations on military

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capability. Although disarmament always involves the reduction of military forces or weapons, arms control does not. In fact, arms control agreements sometimes allow for the increase of weapons by one or more parties to a treaty.


Arms control developed both in theory and in practice during the COLD WAR, a period between the late 1940s and 1991 when the two military superpowers, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), dealt with one another from a position of mutual mistrust. Arms control was devised consciously during the postwar period as an alternative to disarmament, which for many had fallen into discredit as a means of reducing the likelihood of war. Germany had been forced to disarm following WORLD WAR I but became belligerent again during the 1930s, resulting in WORLD WAR II. Although Germany's weapons had been largely eliminated, the underlying causes of conflict had not. Germany's experience thus illustrated that no simple cause-and-effect relationship existed between the possession of weapons and a tendency to create war.

Following World War II, advocates of arms control as a new approach to limiting hostility between nations emphasized that military weapons and power would continue to remain a part of modern life. It was unrealistic and even dangerous, they felt, for a country to seek complete elimination of weapons, and it would not necessarily reduce the likelihood of war. Whereas disarmament had formerly been seen as an alternative to military strength, arms control was now viewed as an integral part of it. Arms control proponents sought to create a stable balance of power in which the forces that cause states to go to war could be controlled and regulated. The emphasis in arms control is thus upon overall stability rather than elimination of arms, and proponents recognize that an increase in weaponry is sometimes required to preserve a balance of power.

The development of arms control owes a great deal to the existence of NUCLEAR WEAPONS as well. By the 1950s, when both the United States and the Soviet Union possessed nuclear weapons, the superpowers became convinced that they could not safely disarm themselves of those weapons. In the absence of guaranteed verification?the process whereby participants in a treaty monitor each other's adherence to the agreement?neither side could disarm without making itself vulnerable to cheating by the other side. The goal of the superpowers and other nations possessing nuclear weapons therefore became not total elimination of those weapons, but control of them so that a stable nuclear deterrent might be maintained. According to the idea of nuclear deterrence, a state possessing nuclear weapons is deterred, or prevented, from using them against another nuclear power because of the threat of retaliation. No state is willing to attempt a first strike because it cannot prevent the other side from striking back. Nuclear deterrence is therefore predicated upon a mutual abhorrence of the destructive power of nuclear weapons. This idea has come to be called mutual assured destruction (MAD).Many experts see deterrence as the ultimate goal of nuclear arms control.

Because many civilians generally assume that arms control and disarmament are the same thing, there has often been public disappointment when treaties have resulted in an increase in the number or power of weapons. An advantage of arms control over disarmament, however, is that even states with a high degree of suspicion or hostility toward each other can still negotiate agreements. Disarmament agreements, on the other hand, require a high degree of trust, and their formation is unlikely between hostile nations.

Arms control is often used as a means to avoid an arms race?a competitive buildup of weapons between two or more powers. Such a race can be costly for both sides, and arms control treaties serve the useful purpose of limiting weapons stockpiles to a level that preserves deterrence while conserving the economic and social resources of a state for other uses.

Modern Arms Control

Although disarmament and arms control agreements were forged prior to World War II (1939?45), the modern arms control effort began in earnest after the CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS of 1962. That situation erupted when the United States discovered that the Soviet Union was constructing launch sites for nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, thereby threatening to put nuclear weapons very close to U.S. soil. President

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JOHN F. KENNEDY declared a naval blockade of the island, and for two weeks, the United States and the USSR existed in a state of heightened tension. Finally, the USSR and the USSR faced off in what became a white-hot international drama of brinksmanship, each side waiting to see who would blink first. With the United States' promise not to overthrow Fidel Castro's government in Cuba, the Soviets canceled plans to install the missiles. After the crisis, Kennedy wrote to Khrushchev, "I...

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