Since man has gone to war, arms control has existed in some form or another. Among the first were the rules of battle protecting sanctuaries established by the dimly remembered Amphictyonic League in seventh-century B.C. Greece. More than two millennia later, cultural and religious norms and taboos restricted and established rules around organized violence until they yielded to modern arms control efforts taken up by diplomatic means and treaties — especially with the advent of industrial warfare.
Arms control efforts, however, remain a manifestation of the geopolitical realities of their age, highly influenced by issues from the balance of power to technological advancement. The past 60 years have been an exceptional period for arms control, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that the preceding 50 years had seen two total wars where arms control was all but nonexistent. The end of the bipolar framework that existed in the Cold War, and the rise of a more multifaceted world, will once again take us into a new arms control era.
This new era is one in which great-power arms control treaties akin to those of past decades are more difficult to strike, but where arms control is not entirely abandoned.
The Cold War era, especially its latter stages, represented a particularly intensive period of arms control. This was largely for two key reasons. The first was the rise of the nuclear era and the associated public and official concern over a particularly fearsome and devastating weapon. Indeed, the nuclear arms race and the emergence of mutually assured destruction emphasized the need for arms control measures to contain tension and reduce uncertainty. The second reason was the fact that the Cold War was largely a bipolar world, with the United States (and by extension, NATO) and the Soviet Union (and by extension, the Warsaw Pact) entirely focused on each other. This made it easier to negotiate arms control treaties under the relatively simple premise of more or less equal limits.
The end of the Cold War initially appeared even more promising for arms control efforts. At first, it paved the way for significant disarmament including key treaties such as the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and the various Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) accords. However, the shifting attention toward the rising threat of arms proliferation, particularly by "rogue" nations, and the emergence of new technological capacity began to weigh on arms control efforts. This was illustrated by the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. The rise of the Chinese military over the past two decades has also eroded the traditional bipolar power system (aside from the strategic nuclear balance), and has weighed heavily on the critical Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Though the United States remains the supreme military power in the world, a resurgent Russia, a rising China and an increasingly multifaceted world will progressively complicate arms control efforts.
Arms Treaties in a Complex World
As arms control is increasingly undertaken in the context of a non-bipolar world, negotiators will find themselves struggling with issues largely absent from previous bilateral efforts. In a more multipolar context, the often unique variables and characteristics associated with the status of disparate parties, with their unique strengths and weaknesses, can make it exceedingly difficult to reach an agreement suitable to all.
There are historical examples that we can look to when considering multilateral arms control in a world that is not dominated by two powers but by a plethora of large powers with varying levels of capability. The Washington and London naval treaties of the 1920s and 1930s were a highly complicated set of treaties that sought to regulate naval construction among the five main victors of World War 1 (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Japan and Italy) in order to temper acrimonious competition and arms races.
The Washington Naval Treaty was first agreed to in February 1922 and imposed tonnage limitations on capital ships and aircraft carriers for the great powers. This effectively gave parity to the United States and Britain, a ratio of a little more than half that to Japan, and then half of Japan's quota to France and Italy. Even at an early stage, the Washington Naval Treaty proved contentious, particularly in the United Kingdom, Japan and France, where significant factions were unhappy with the negotiated ratios. The lack of provisions for other vessel types and a plethora of remaining loopholes also undermined the Washington Naval Treaty. While an attempt to address these deficiencies was undertaken with the April 1930 London Naval Treaty, the naval arms limitation efforts were increasingly undermined by the growing ambitions of Japan and Italy, and were in many cases violated by all parties even before their effective demise in the late 1930s.
When considering great-power multilateral arms control in today's environment in light of historical examples, it quickly becomes apparent that such efforts would be very difficult, if not impossible, to successfully conclude in an enduring manner. The same charges of arrogance over tonnage ratios made by factions in Japan against the United States and United Kingdom in the 1920s and 1930s would also quickly surface if such rationing was attempted in today's world. It is not hard to see how such attempts would be highly unpopular in countries such as Russia and China that already chafe at what they view as U.S. global hegemony.
The Price of Progress
Advancement in technology will also highly complicate arms control efforts. Submarine, aircraft carrier and cruiser development rapidly outdated the Washington Naval Treaty, thus necessitating numerous revisions and updates. Similarly, hypersonic technology, ballistic missile defense and a number of future technologies and advancements could quickly undermine agreed-upon terms of arms control related to ballistic missiles or a host of other weapons systems in today's world.
Differing national military strategies and capabilities can also greatly impede expansive multilateral arms control efforts. The INF Treaty is a great example of the difficulties in this regard. While there is a logical desire by both the United States and Russia to bring the Chinese into such an agreement, there is little if any incentive for Beijing to limit its short- to intermediate-range missile arsenal. For this is not only an arsenal into which China has heavily invested; it is also a capability that it views as vital to its military strategy in the Western Pacific, particularly against a conventionally superior United States.
Furthermore, and staying with the INF example, there are often considerable knock-on effects associated with arms control in a multilateral domain that are largely absent in a world dominated by two superpowers. Just as the INF is increasingly untenable for the United States and Russia as China builds up its short- to intermediate-range missile arsenal, Beijing is extremely reluctant to give up or limit these types of missiles when some of its other competitors (in this case, India) are building up their own arsenals of such weapons.
With the Cold War bilateral arms control order already largely in the past, and with global multilateral arms control exceedingly difficult, where does that leave the future of arms control? First, it is important to stress that in a certain key domain, we still very much continue to exist in the bilateral U.S.-Russian spectrum. It is within that spectrum that great-power bilateral arms control will likely remain viable for quite some time despite the increased stress from technological disruption. The clearest example of this is in the realm of strategic nuclear weapons, where despite concerns over a potential Chinese buildup and the increased stress of missile defense, the United States and Russia maintain by far the largest global inventories and will continue to have strong grounds for maintaining agreed-upon limits. Indeed, it could easily take decades if not more for technological disruption or shifting global inventories to fully disrupt this paradigm.
Beyond the singular example of strategic nuclear warheads however, the old bilateral arms control framework as manifested by expired or highly stressed arms control treaties such as the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and the INF Treaty is already gone. Shifting from this arms control era, the future of arms control will thus likely be increasingly focused on nonproliferation, will be mostly regional, and indeed in many cases will be unilateral.
Given the rapidly shifting landscape of a progressively multilateral world that is driven by the growing threat of weapons proliferation, the focus of arms control efforts will increasingly turn toward efforts at containing the spread of technology and weapons rather than the more difficult task of negotiating great-power deployment and use. An early example of such arms control efforts is the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime, which was initially implemented entirely within a group of allied nations (the G7 countries) rather than through a negotiation with an adversarial entity. Another successful example is the International Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation that followed the Missile Technology Control Regime in 2002. It remains the only multilateral code of conduct to be widely adopted, including by the great powers with the exception of China, in the past couple of decades.
The Importance of Not Giving Up
Though difficult and not always successful, continued efforts will also be made to secure regional arms control agreements. Broadly, these can take two forms. The first, building on the relatively successful history of weapons-free zones such as the various nuclear weapons-free zones negotiated over the past decades (including the Latin American, South Pacific, Southeast Asian and African ones), can be used as a template to counter the proliferation of any destabilizing new technology at an early stage. The second type of geographically focused arms control effort is a less ambitious and more focused one — specifically, arms control efforts that seek to limit or delineate the deployment of weaponry in a specific area between two warring states, as we have seen recently with the Minsk agreement covering the deployment of heavy weapons in the Donbas region of Ukraine.
Continued technological progress also is not necessarily always bad for arms control. Just as technological advancements could make it much more difficult to pursue and enact global multilateral arms control, they can also facilitate a unilateral or self-restricting stance on certain weaponry. For example, the United States, Russia, China and India did not sign on to the 1997 Ottawa Treaty that bans anti-personnel mines. But the United States did unilaterally commit to not using persistent land mines. This was in part because of general U.S. conventional military superiority but also in large part because of the availability of sophisticated (albeit more expensive) command-detonated and self-destructing mines. The widespread availability of deadly yet costly precision-guided munitions has also lead the United States — once again one of the few nations that can afford them in mass quantities — in recent years to largely eschew or limit its use of cluster munitions despite refusing to sign the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions.
Arms control can be broad or focused, regional or global — it can even be unilateral. Arms control, however, always reflects the power-balance order under which it exists. The highly charged bilateral framework of the Cold War heavily drove arm control efforts, but naturally they remained largely fixated between NATO and the Western Pact, even directly between the United States and the Soviet Union. With the end of the Cold War and a rapidly evolving multifaceted world, it has become increasingly difficult to successfully enact comprehensive high-end arms control agreements. Indeed, we have seen a worrisome trend whereby cornerstone arms control agreements signed between the United States and Russia such as the INF Treaty are rapidly weakening. However, we have and will continue to see arms control shift toward the counterproliferation framework, even as it remains an ever-useful tool for de-escalation efforts in a conflict or even efforts at limiting or removing specific weapons on humanitarian grounds.
Omar Lamrani focuses on air power, naval strategy, technology, logistics and military doctrine for a number of regions, including the Middle East and Asia. He studied international relations at Clark University and holds a master's degree from the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, where his thesis centered on Chinese military doctrine and the balance of power in the Western Pacific.
A Changing Rulebook to Tame the New Global Arms Race