On the Objectives of Arms Control

in Program

Quote of the week:

“If arms control were killed, it would have to be reinvented.”

– Paul Warnke

The canonical objectives of Cold War-era arms control were laid out in the seminal book by Thomas Schelling and Mort Halperin, Strategy and Arms Control (1961): the avoidance of a war that neither side wants, minimizing the costs and risks of the arms competition, and curtailing the scope and violence of war in the event it occurs.

Herman Kahn (with Anthony Weiner) had a somewhat similar take. Writing in the journal Astronautics and Aeronautics (December, 1967), he opined that the objectives of arms control were “to improve the inherent stability of the situation, decrease the occasions or the approximate causes of war within the system, and decrease the destructiveness and other disutilities of any wars that actually occur.” Kahn also agreed with Schelling and Halperin that saving money – decreasing “the cost of defense preparation” – was important, although he placed it lower in his list of priorities.

Bernard Brodie weighed in on this debate in the first issue (Summer 1976) of International Security. [Side note for Wonks: This volume is worth finding. Other essays were written by Hedley Bull, James Schlesinger, Maxwell Taylor, Thomas Schelling and Donald Brennan.] For Brodie, then a political science professor at UCLA, the objectives of arms control should be “mutually consistent, to be worth achieving, and to be in some degree achievable.” His last point would set him crosswise with contemporary Abolitionists, but Abolitionists were hard to find during the formative decades of arms control.

Back then, Brodie was in a particularly quarrelsome mood. He took issue with the oft-stated objectives of reducing the probability of war or its destructiveness should war occur, arguing that the probability of war between the superpowers was “extremely low,” and that, “in any case, we cannot do much about that probability through arms control.” As for limiting the destructiveness of war, Brodie argued that this could only be achieved through very low numbers among nuclear-armed states, rather than through counterforce capabilities. Of all the stated objectives of nuclear arms control, Brodie was most sympathetic to cost savings. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was, in his view, a prime example of not wasting tax dollars on expensive and technically deficient weapon systems.

With the benefit of hindsight, have the canonical objectives of nuclear arms control been met or surpassed? Or has this effort been largely wasted, disappointing or unnecessary?


Continue reading at Arms Control Wonk.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center.

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