After a post-Cold War interlude, arms control among the great powers is once again in vogue. Foreign policy debates increasingly turn on considerations of arms control: whether to scrap the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), whether to continue the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) process, whether to include China in negotiations to limit armaments, and how to minimize the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, these debates are riven by differing assumptions concerning the ultimate purpose of arms-control efforts. For example: Should the United States take preventive military action to limit North Korea’s nuclear capability? Should it instead seek mutual strategic stability with a newly nuclear North Korea? Or should the United States redouble its efforts to eliminate all nuclear weapons, everywhere?1 Proponents of each course of action can credibly lay claim to the mantle of “arms control.” But which is correct? How would we know good arms control if we saw it?
Robert Jervis observed, “If the main objective of arms control is to make war less likely, then any theory of arms control must rest on a theory of the causes of war.”2 Why wars occur is a vast topic, however, and scholars remain divided over the causes of armed conflict.3 This division among scholars is reflected in the competing concepts of how arms limitation among great powers can reduce the chances of war. In this essay, I examine three key explanations for the cause of war — influence groups, weapons, and actors — and demonstrate how each leads toward a different approach to arms control: disarmament, stability, and advantage, respectively. I will show that absent a solid consensus on the purpose of arms control, historically successful arms-limitation agreements have managed to serve multiple purposes. My essay concludes with a brief account of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty: specifically, how its creators and supporters managed to advance the purposes of disarmament, stability, and advantage simultaneously over the lifetime of the treaty.
Recognizing the multiple motives that arms-control negotiations aim to serve is vital to understanding arms control’s impact on international security, for at least three reasons. First, scholars and commentators often cite the existence of arms-control negotiations as evidence that states are proceeding on a more cooperative path.4 Yet the pursuit of arms control is not always a cooperative exercise. States often employ arms-control negotiations as vehicles for advancing their own competitive agendas, all in the name of peace. Treating arms control as purely cooperative risks misunderstanding its impact on international politics. Second, given the paucity of documentary resources from key actors such as the Soviet Union, historians struggle to evaluate the success or failure of particular arms-control negotiations. Understanding the theoretical debates surrounding the purpose of arms control can provide new criteria for understanding whether an arms-control regime succeeded. Third, a historical reconstruction of the multiple meanings of arms control can help to clarify the importance of time as a variable in such arrangements — in particular, how different arms-control rationales may rely on different time horizons and how the purpose of a single agreement may change over time. The manipulation of differing timelines provides opportunities for building consensus on arms control between radically different policy agendas, with some arms controllers receiving benefits in the short term and others over the longer term. U.S. policymakers considering the future of arms control would do well to consider how previous administrations built their complex arms-control policies.
The study of arms control has produced a vast literature, but surprisingly little has examined the specific mechanisms whereby great powers can reduce the chances of war. As a result, scholars and experts often talk past each other — rather than to each other — in arms-control debates. Much of the existing literature describes the goals of arms control in generic terms such as “peace,” “stability,” or “security,” with little emphasis on how limiting specific weapons systems contributes to these hazily defined concepts.5 Other works insist that there is a single war-preventing logic of arms control, usually downplaying or ignoring other possible motives.6 Future research on arms control could benefit by placing these differing perspectives in dialogue with each other to foster an understanding of how, exactly, arms control can reduce the chances of war.
Explanations for War and Arms Control
Analysts and advocates of arms control fall into three broad categories, depending on which explanation of the cause of war they embrace. The first category includes those who believe that war is caused by influence groups, especially the military-industrial complex, and the various structures of thought and culture promoted by those groups. The second category involves those who believe that war is caused by certain kinds of weapons, especially weapons that promote first-strike advantages or create conditions of offense-dominance. The third category consists of individuals who believe that war is caused by certain kinds of actors — countries that are especially aggressive, ideological, or revisionist. Each of these explanations for what causes war leads to a different understanding of the purpose of arms control. For those who believe that influence groups create war, the proper purpose of arms control is disarmament: reducing the overall level of weapons and dismantling the organizations and cultures that produce them. For those who believe that dangerous weapons cause war, the purpose of arms control is stability, or limiting especially dangerous offense-dominant weapons while bolstering deterrence by allowing the procurement of defense-dominant weapons. For those who believe that pernicious actors cause war, the purpose of arms control is advantage: preventing dangerous countries from acquiring weapons technologies while preserving a favorable balance of power for trustworthy, status quo countries. Determining which of these three approaches to arms control best prevents conflict is difficult given the lack of consensus on the causes of war.
Influence Groups and Disarmament
One prevalent explanation for the cause of war is the impact that war-promoting influence groups, often described as the “military-industrial complex,”7 have on governments. Critics of the military-industrial complex have identified several mechanisms whereby pro-war interest groups create the conditions for war to occur. First, critics claim that the drive for profits causes the military-industrial complex to lobby politicians directly for confrontational policies, which justify purchasing more weapons and also make war more likely.8 Second, critics claim that the activities of the military-industrial complex shape the thinking of elite decision-makers, normalizing violence and creating the psychological and emotional space for extreme anti-social behavior — like war — to occur.9 Third, critics argue that the military-industrial complex promotes structures of class, race, and gender that influence broader attitudes toward violence, providing rationales for conflict that leaders and citizens alike deploy to justify war.10 Both directly and indirectly, military-industrial interest groups explain why governments and societies wage war rather than seek peaceful solutions.
For those who argue that war is the result of pro-war interest groups, the primary purpose of arms control is disarmament. While arms-control agreements often reduce the number of weapons available to states, proponents of disarmament argue that the more important function of such agreements is to tame adverse military-industrial complexes and to dismantle old attitudes and cultures of war.11 In addition to achieving anti-militarist objectives, the promotion of disarmament agreements provides opportunities to create new coalitions in favor of international and social justice while also freeing resources from wasteful military competition to pursue these peaceful agendas.12 By contributing to the dismantlement of militarist interest groups, arms-control agreements can advance the cause of peace.
Historically, disarmament has been an influential determinant of arms-limitation policies in great-power countries, especially through its widespread public appeal. The international disarmament movement can trace its roots to various reform efforts of the late 19th century.13 Pro-disarmament organizations were especially active during the interwar period, and their aspirations were first given significant form through the League of Nations’ efforts at international disarmament.14 After World War II, international disarmament efforts refocused on eliminating nuclear weapons, with major waves of anti-nuclear protests in the 1950s and 1980s.15 The second wave of nuclear disarmament advocacy found willing partners in Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, who saw the elimination of nuclear weapons as a long-term objective.16 More recently, nuclear disarmament has regained strength via the “Global Zero” movement.17 Disarmament has thus been an important goal of great powers’ arms limitation throughout the modern period.
Proponents of disarmament arms control often take a long-term view of the purpose of arms control, recognizing that dismantling militarist influence groups and redirecting resources toward pursuing social justice will take time.18 As a result, despite their expansive explanation of the cause of war, proponents of disarmament often support more limited arms-control measures, as long as those measures can be understood as part of a progressive program for dismantling weapons and militarist interest groups more generally.19 For example, the 1987 INF Treaty is often praised by advocates of disarmament for its “elimination of an entire category of weapons systems,” even though the treaty limits only land-based missiles of ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, and for only two countries at that.20 Whatever the treaty’s perceived shortcomings, many disarmament advocates see the INF as a good first step toward the more comprehensive elimination of nuclear weapons.
Proponents of disarmament arms control often take a long-term view of the purpose of arms control...
Although it rests on a coherent explanation of the cause of war, arms control with the goal of disarmament has its critics. Many proponents of arms control for the purpose of strategic stability and advantage argue that seeking disarmament may make war more likely if the effort dismantles the military capabilities necessary for deterrence.21 Others question whether martial interest groups really drive international conflict or whether military-industrial complexes instead emerge as a response to preexisting political differences among states,22 in which case finding a solution to existing political differences would have to precede disarmament.23 The empirical record on the successes of disarmament is mixed. On the one hand, significant disarmament negotiations in the interwar period failed to prevent the outbreak of World War II, while the “long peace” of the Cold War was marked by high armaments on all sides.24 On the other hand, proponents of disarmament can credibly argue that disarmament negotiations in the interwar period never went far enough to impede militarism and an arms race and that the nuclear disarmament movement played an important role in regulating and ultimately ending the U.S.-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War.25 Proponents of disarmament argue that facing such a mixed empirical record, and mindful of the horrible consequences should deterrence fail, the safest path forward is for states to dismantle their weapons and tame hawkish interest groups.26
Weapons and Stability
A second prevalent theory of what causes war relates to the nature of weapons technologies and, especially, their impact on the offense-defense balance. This explanation for war begins with the structural condition of anarchy, in which states procure weapons for security and bargaining purposes.27 Among the available weapons, some are useful primarily for defensive purposes and others are more useful for offensive purposes. The distribution and balance of these competing types of weapons can have a profound impact on the likelihood of war. In cases where the balance favors the defense, attacking a neighbor is expensive and difficult, thus strengthening deterrence and making states less likely to fight each other. In cases where the balance favors the offense, however, attacking a neighbor appears less costly, which in turn weakens deterrence and makes states more likely to fight each other.28 An offense-dominant military balance can generate crisis instability, where the significant advantage of striking first can push states to escalate conflicts quickly in order to avoid the disadvantages of being attacked.29 Relations between states in offense-dominant environments are also more likely to be poisoned by “security dilemmas,” in which states procuring offensive weapons for self-defense undermine the security of their neighbors, triggering arms races that ultimately undermine the security of both parties.30 For these reasons, offense-defense theorists maintain that the balance of offense-defense capabilities determines the likelihood of war.
For those who worry that the technological balance between offensive and defensive weapons is a primary driver of war, the proper purpose for arms control is stability, or promoting a defense-dominant international environment. By prohibiting or limiting the deployment of offensive weapons while allowing the deployment of defensive ones, arms control can shape the offense-defense balance, strengthen crisis stability, ameliorate security dilemmas, strengthen deterrence, and ultimately prevent war.31 In the nuclear era, defense dominance has become closely associated with the strategy of mutually assured destruction, in which (paradoxically) “defensive” forces are aimed primarily at the destruction of the adversary’s country, maintaining deterrence by rendering any meaningful victory in war impossible. By making offensive war impossible, nuclear deterrence effectively privileges the defender, even if no material defense is possible.32 Capabilities that might undermine mutual vulnerability by threatening an adversary’s nuclear forces directly — whether accurate, fast-striking offensive missiles or effective missile defense systems — are deemed to be “offensive” or “destabilizing,” because the “use them or lose them” dilemma they create generates strong incentives to shoot first in a crisis.33 Stability arms control thus contributes to the cause of peace by limiting those weapons that might undermine the defense-dominance of great-power politics.
Historically, stability has been an important objective of many great powers’ arms-limitation agreements. Some negotiations in the interwar period sought to tailor offensive and defensive forces to establish a more secure balance of power. For example, the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty placed limits on both battleship numbers and fortified bases in order to create a defense-dominant environment in the Pacific.34 Before its disbandment, the World Disarmament Conference of the League of Nations also placed a high priority on limiting offensive arms.35 The formal logic of stability took off in the 1950s with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology. Classical arms-control theorists including Thomas Schelling, Morton Halperin, and Hedley Bull argued that arms-control negotiations could construct a stable balance of terror between the superpowers.36 In this view, deterrence could be reinforced by restricting access to damage-limiting capabilities, like large and accurate intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and ABM defenses.37 By reducing incentives to limit damage through preemptive attack, this approach to arms control would disincentivize countries from engaging in intentional war while also reducing the danger of accidental escalation in a crisis.38 By the late 1960s, stability had become entrenched as one of the most important objectives of superpower arms control, with widespread condemnation — among experts and the public — of ABM systems as well as large and accurate ICBM deployments.39 Crisis and arms-race stability remain a touchstone for contemporary debates on arms-control policy.40
Unlike disarmament, the policy prescriptions of stability arms control prefer immediate and permanent solutions to pressing military-technical problems. This is because most proponents of stability arms control locate the problem to be solved in the specific technical characteristics of the weapons and their interaction with other weapons systems. For example, large surface-based ballistic missiles are inherently destabilizing because they can be effectively targeted and destroyed by other large surface-based ballistic missiles. By comparison, the technical capabilities of ballistic-missile submarines, and their relative invulnerability to other weapons, render them stabilizing, rather than destabilizing.41 As a result, proponents of stability arms control tend to see arms-control agreements as fixed commitments to limit inherently dangerous weapons, whose revision or abrogation would, in their view, be a mistake.42 To the extent that change occurs, it is primarily driven by the introduction of new, perhaps even more destabilizing, technologies.43 Advocates of stability arms control also tend to be skeptical of partial measures, which they view as missed opportunities to control the entire military-technical problem.44 This approach’s focus on producing self-contained, mutually beneficial, and timeless arms-control agreements is distinct from both disarmament and advantage arms control, which often consider individual agreements as components of larger programs to promote peace.
As with disarmament, stability arms control is not without its critics. First, a number of scholars have criticized the central claims of offense-defense theory, arguing that weapons cannot be readily divided into “stabilizing” and “destabilizing” camps, that it is too difficult for states to determine whether an adversary’s deployments are stabilizing or destabilizing, or that states do not evaluate weapons types in crafting their foreign policy.45 Absent the ability to classify weapons as stabilizing or destabilizing, it is difficult to imagine how states could reduce the chances of war by limiting destabilizing weapons. Second, proponents of the nuclear revolution thesis question whether the advent of nuclear weapons has rendered the military balance largely superfluous, creating instead a relatively stable realm of nuclear peace between the great powers. If nuclear weapons automatically eliminate the possibility of war, then negotiations to tailor the specific makeup of armaments may not matter much in reducing the chances of war.46 Finally, deterrence skeptics call into question whether armed forces, especially nuclear forces, are really an effective tool for preventing war. If even “stabilizing” weapons cannot prevent war, then perhaps broader disarmament is preferable to cooperative tinkering of armed forces.47 As with disarmament, the empirical record remains ambiguous, with scholars deeply divided over whether the offense-defense balance has driven great powers to war and whether effective engineering of the offense-defense balance through arms control has made the world a safer place.48
Actors and Advantage
A third common explanation for how wars start suggests that some actors are simply more prone to war than others. Scholars have advanced several reasons for why some states may be more likely to cause war. First, some states may be ideologically or culturally predisposed toward war. Nazi Germany is the most obvious and grotesque example,49 but during the Cold War scholars criticized the United States and the Soviet Union as ideologically driven and especially war-prone.50 Second, some states may be institutionally predisposed toward war, particularly if their leaders find international military disputes useful for distracting from domestic difficulties.51 Since the Cold War ended, much attention has been given to “rogue states,” whose rejection of liberal internationalism and unstable domestic politics are said to pose a significant threat to world peace.52 Third, the anarchic structure of international politics may drive some states to grow more aggressive over time. Scholars of power-transition theory maintain that war becomes more likely as newly rising great powers seek to revise the distribution of goods in their favor, while hegemons attempt to preempt the emergence of new rivals.53 Under any of these conditions, peace may depend primarily on the ability of relatively peaceful status quo states to maintain a preponderance of military power, to deter aggressive adversaries from attacking.54
If some states are particularly prone to war, and international peace depends primarily on arraying sufficient forces to deter them, then arms control can contribute to peace primarily through promoting the military advantage of status quo powers. To accomplish this goal, states can structure arms-control agreements to place stricter limits on their adversaries than on themselves, or they can seek to construct symmetrical arms-control regimes that limit weapons technologies more advantageous to their adversaries.55 Although it is tempting to write off advantage arms control as a cynical ploy, it rests on a clear logic of preventing war: Limiting particularly dangerous actors’ access to advanced weapons technology can strengthen deterrence by reinforcing the military advantages of the status quo powers.
[A]dvantage arms control views the value of individual arms-control agreements through the prism of their contribution to a larger peace-promoting agenda...
Historically, advantage has been a chief objective of many arms-limitation arrangements. Early efforts to leverage arms control for advantage occurred at the conclusion of major wars, including Sparta’s destruction of Athens’s walls and navy, Rome’s disarmament of Carthage after the Punic Wars, and the limitations on German military power in the Treaty of Versailles.56 Interwar naval arms control was also heavily influenced by calculations of relative military and industrial advantage, especially the United States and Great Britain’s imposition of a 10-to-six ratio in naval strength regarding Japan.57 Although all of the signatories of interwar naval arms limitation agreements pursued advantage within the formal negotiated limits, the Germans and Japanese also sought advantage by cheating on their arms-control commitments.58 During the Cold War, a number of U.S. political scientists, including Donald Brennan, William Kintner, and Robert Pfaltzgraff, developed more formal arguments concerning how the United States might employ arms control to limit Soviet military advantage, though these ideas never received the same level of attention as those of stability arms-control advocates like Schelling, Halperin, and Bull.59 Although proponents of advantage arms control had limited impact on the emerging field of political science, their ideas had a stronger influence over U.S. arms-control policy: U.S. leaders privately evaluated arms-control proposals on the basis of the relative advantages they afforded to the United States and the Soviet Union.60 Furthermore, although the evidence on Soviet motives is limited and mixed, there is also reason to believe that the Soviet leadership continued to seek some margin of nuclear superiority over the United States in arms-control negotiations.61 To date, much of the discussion concerning arms-limitation negotiations with North Korea centers on the importance of denying its unstable regime the military advantages of possessing nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.62
Like disarmament, and unlike stability, advantage arms control views the value of individual arms-control agreements through the prism of their contribution to a larger peace-promoting agenda: in this case, promoting the military advantage of status quo powers over war-prone revisionist powers. While stability arms control characterizes specific weapons technologies as inherently stabilizing or destabilizing, advantage arms control proceeds by emphasizing the role of various weapons technologies within the structure of long-term competition. For advocates of advantage arms control, agreements may dictate the pace of arms competition, allowing status quo states to put off competition until more favorable circumstances arise. They may push competition into environments more conducive to status quo states, for example by forcing revisionist land powers to compete primarily at sea, or vice versa. They may also shape competition to promote the relative military-technical advantages of status quo states, for example, by shifting competition from quantitative arms racing to qualitative arms racing.63 Because the mix of political, military, economic, and cultural factors driving long-term competition changes over time, proponents of advantage arms control tend to see arms-limitation agreements as temporary tools whose utility may expire as the larger structure of competition changes. Unlike disarmament arms controllers, advantage arms controllers do not necessarily see arms-control agreements as progressive building blocks toward a larger, peaceful goal. Rather, many advocates of advantage arms control view long-term competition as a normal part of great-power relations in which states compete for marginal military advantages over time. Arms-control agreements are seen as instrumental in shaping this competition, to be concluded and discarded as convenient.64 Peace is a product of this competitive interaction rather than an end result of a transformative process.
While it is difficult to imagine a state concluding an agreement that places it at a disadvantage, scholars studying competitive arms control have suggested a number of scenarios under which advantage arms limitation might occur. First, a state seeking stability might be tricked into an arms-control agreement that undermines its relative security. Cold War theorists of competitive arms control were constantly concerned that the Soviet Union might trick the United States into such an agreement.65 Second, a leader in a weak political position might agree to a disadvantageous arms-control agreement in order to secure the domestic political benefits of the agreement. Some observers have viewed Gorbachev’s dramatic arms-control concessions in this light.66 Third, adversaries might conclude an arms-control agreement that promotes different relative advantages for each side. For example, while the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty codified a 10-to-six U.S. advantage in battleship tonnage over Japan, the U.S. agreement not to fortify its bases in the Western Pacific provided Japan with a substantial advantage in Northeast Asia.67 Finally, adversaries might have different calculations about the long-term implications of an arms-control agreement, with each side seeking to advance its own competitive advantage.68 The practice of negotiating limitations on complex weapons systems opens up possibilities for creative misunderstandings, generating opportunities for states to seek advantage through arms control.69
Like both disarmament and stability, the basic assumptions underlying arms control for advantage have been subject to ample criticism. First, many scholars question whether factors such as regime type, ideological orientation, or power transition theory adequately explain the outbreak of war.70 Even among those who accept that these factors might explain why wars begin, debates rage over which regimes, ideologies, or positions are most prone to war.71 Second, analysts remain uncertain over how much relative advantage in military capabilities actually improves deterrence when compared with other factors such as the relative interests or resolve of the adversaries involved, or their ability to communicate those interests and resolve to each other.72 This is especially the case where nuclear weapons are involved: Some scholars argue that even a small nuclear arsenal makes deterrence easy, rendering the balance of capabilities largely superfluous, while others maintain that even marginal advantages in the relative nuclear balance can have outsize effects on the success or failure of deterrence.73 Third, critics maintain that arms-control negotiations are ineffective in modifying the balance of military capabilities, and instead simply ratify the preexisting balance.74 In the face of this criticism, it is difficult to determine whether arms control for advantage really makes war less likely.
Jervis’ admonition that one’s theory of arms control ought to emerge from one’s theory of war thus presents a serious problem. The multiple, competing explanations for war call for multiple, competing approaches to arms control. The theoretical bases of these competing explanations for war are diverse, focusing on different causal mechanisms and generating very different policy prescriptions. Indeed, these competing approaches to arms control rest on such different theoretical foundations that proponents of each often downplay or even ignore the existence of the others. Yet given the diversity of explanations for war, each approach can credibly claim the mantle of “arms control,” and none can be easily rejected as obviously false. This cacophony of arms-control purposes creates serious challenges for policymakers.
Purpose and Policy: The ABM Treaty, 1972–2001
While scholars may agree to disagree about arms control, political leaders can enjoy no such luxury. In order to conduct effective negotiations, a government must develop an arms-control policy to guide its negotiators. Absent a clear and uncontested understanding of the purpose of arms control, how can such a policy be constructed? In theory, one might expect a government to select from the approaches outlined above and to pursue it as the primary objective of negotiations. In practice, however, leaders often produce arms-control policy that seeks to compromise among the competing goals. This sort of compromise allows leaders to build the domestic coalitions necessary to prevail in the “two-level game” of arms control, where leaders must conclude international and domestic bargains at the same time.75 It also allows leaders to hedge their bets between competing theories. Analyses assuming a single, obvious rationale for arms control have generally viewed these sorts of compromises as a dilution of true purpose.76 Once one accepts that arms control can have multiple purposes, however, it becomes easier to appreciate that these compromises serve as the building blocks of success. A key example is the 1972 ABM Treaty, a single agreement that ultimately came to embody the hopes and fears of all three approaches to arms control — disarmament, stability, and advantage.
The idea of a treaty to limit anti-ballistic missiles originated in the Johnson administration in the mid-1960s. Already facing the double challenge of waging the Vietnam War while advancing the Great Society program, President Lyndon Johnson was eager to avoid an ABM arms race with the Soviets, which threatened to be both costly and politically unpopular. Johnson also feared that conservatives would punish him politically if he unilaterally limited America’s ABM deployments. So, Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sought to negotiate a bilateral agreement with the Soviet Union limiting these missiles, an approach that would avert the costs of their deployment while also bolstering the U.S. strategy of assured destruction, which sought to convince the Soviets of the futility of further arms racing.77 The Soviets initially rebuffed Johnson’s proposal for arms limitation but ultimately agreed to talks. Soviet willingness to begin Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) came too late for Johnson, who, by 1968, was already on his way out of office.78
Unlike Johnson, incoming President Richard Nixon remained committed to deploying some kind of ABM system. Nixon had wooed conservative voters in 1968 with promises of restoring America’s strategic superiority over the Soviet Union, including some form of ABM deployment.79 Moreover, Nixon appointed a cadre of competitive arms controllers to the Defense Department and National Security Council staff who saw ABM technology as a crucial area of U.S. advantage that should be fully exploited. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and Deputy Defense Secretary David Packard believed that U.S. advantages in precision manufacturing, advanced electronics, and digital computing would ultimately allow the United States to deploy an ABM system far superior to anything that the Soviets could produce.80 In March 1969, Laird proposed that the United States deploy an ABM system known as “Safeguard” — which included a dozen major ABM sites across the United States — that was capable of providing a limited defense of U.S. cities and strategic forces from a Chinese or Soviet attack.81 In addition to its own merits, many within the defense establishment saw Safeguard as a first step toward an even more capable ABM system.82 From the beginning, conservatives in the Nixon administration were determined to use ABM technology to promote U.S. military advantage over the Soviet Union.
For Nixon, the test would be finding ways to exploit those advantages while also bolstering strategic stability. The Nixon administration blended arms-control purposes for multiple reasons. The first and most obvious was that policymakers were unsure as to which logic was best or whether some combination of them might be preferable. For example, in approaching SALT, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger was of two minds. In a May 1969 memo to Nixon on SALT options, Kissinger outlined the major U.S. objective in arms-limitation negotiations with the Soviet Union as such: “An agreement could freeze or codify strategic relationships in a manner which preserves ‘equality’ at worst and a U.S. edge at best.” Kissinger sought an agreement that would broadly stabilize the arms race while allowing for U.S. advantages on the margins, the better to strengthen “an American President’s resolve in a crisis.”83 In doing so, Kissinger personally combined both the stability and advantage approaches to arms control.
The division between proponents and opponents of ABMs initially led the Nixon administration to an impasse regarding SALT.
Arms-control purposes are further blended through the domestic policy process as officials with differing preferences build coalitions to support their own views and compromise with other coalitions to produce policy. On the issue of anti-ballistic missiles, Nixon could not do as he pleased because his government was deeply divided over the merits of ABMs. While proponents in the Defense Department and White House insisted on moving forward with ABM deployments, opponents in the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, including Secretary of State William Rogers and agency Director Gerard Smith, insisted that any ABM deployment would undermine the strategic equilibrium with the Soviet Union. Rogers and Smith instead promoted a stability approach to arms control, arguing that the United States should seek an agreement with the Soviets to ban ABMs as soon as possible.84 The conflict between advocates of advantage arms control in the Defense Department and proponents of stability arms control at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency would define the Nixon administration’s approach to SALT.85
The division between proponents and opponents of ABMs initially led the Nixon administration to an impasse regarding SALT. Proponents of advantage arms control, like Laird, Packard, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Earle Wheeler, argued that any SALT agreement would need to allow the full 12-site Safeguard deployment. Meanwhile, stability arms controllers, including Smith and Rogers, called for an immediate freeze on all ABM construction.86 Internal debates about the wisdom of ABM deployment quickly spilled into public view as congressional opponents of the missiles organized to block the first phase of Safeguard’s deployment. Constant leaking from the administration, as well as awkward public controversies between government officials, repeatedly undermined Safeguard’s chances.87 After a bruising congressional battle, funding for the first phase of Safeguard squeaked through the U.S. Senate in August 1969 on a 50-50 split, with Vice President Spiro Agnew casting the tie-breaking vote.88 Challenged by Congress and unable to control his subordinates, Nixon’s strategic arms policy was off to an inauspicious start.
Congressional opposition to Safeguard shaped the U.S. position on SALT. By the fall of 1969, the intensity of congressional opposition convinced advantage arms controllers like Laird and Packard that the United States would not be able to deploy the full 12-site Safeguard system in the near future. Not coincidentally, they began to promote a much more stringent ABM agreement that would, in effect, confine the Soviets to the level of ABM deployment that the U.S. Congress would allow — the two ABM sites authorized in the first phase of Safeguard.89 The Defense Department’s shifting priorities lined up with the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency’s continued advocacy of a zero- or low-level ABM agreement.90 As a result, the initial U.S. proposals on SALT in April 1970 sought to limit ABMs to very low levels, with only one or two bases allowed per side.91 The Soviets immediately accepted, in principle, the idea of maintaining low-level ABM deployments, setting the basic terms for the ABM Treaty that would be concluded in Moscow two years later.92
The ABM “compromise” in the Nixon administration was itself the result of some creative misunderstanding between advocates of advantage and stability arms control. While Smith and Rogers saw the ABM limitations as preventing widespread proliferation of a destabilizing weapons technology, Laird and Packard saw these limitations as necessary to prevent unlimited Soviet deployments, which, for political reasons, the United States would not be able to match. We know that advocates of advantage arms control in the Defense Department continued to see ABM technology as an area of relative U.S. advantage because they continually attempted to push the envelope on ABM deployments. Although by late 1969 Laird and Packard had despaired of further ABM deployments by the United States, at least in the short term, Senate debate in the summer of 1970 suggested that Congress might fund a more extensive ABM deployment if it were limited to defending ICBM fields in the Midwest. This, in turn, rekindled Laird and Packard’s interest.93
The realization that Congress might fund more than two ABM sites caused Laird and Packard to have serious buyer’s remorse over the April 1970 SALT proposals limiting ABM deployments, which the Soviets had already accepted. In 1971, in the face of deadlock with the Soviets over how to limit offensive forces, the Defense Department began insisting that any SALT agreement provide the United States with a four-to-one advantage in ABM bases, driven by Laird and Packard’s conviction that Congress would eventually fund four ABM sites.94 The U.S. and Soviet SALT delegations spent the better part of a year wrangling over this new ABM proposal, with the U.S. delegates eventually falling back to two-for-one, while the Soviets continued to insist on the April 1970 proposal for equal bases.95 By that point, the Defense Department had already moved on from its interest in Safeguard ABM “bases” and was, instead, proposing a new ABM modality in which several short-range interceptors would be co-located with each ICBM silo, resulting in the distributed deployment of thousands of interceptors and hundreds of networked radars. True to form, Laird and Packard pushed for a new ABM arms-control proposal under which the United States would be able to deploy such an expansive ABM system while the Soviets would remain limited to their single ABM facility in Moscow.96 This was too far even for Nixon, who, along with Kissinger, had concluded that anything other than ABM equality would be non-negotiable with the Soviets.97 As a result, the ABM Treaty concluded by Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in May 1972 allowed each side two ABM bases, later reduced to a single base for each.98 The Defense Department’s efforts to reformulate the ABM negotiations have received little attention from historians because the final agreement dictated an equal number of bases. However, these behind-the-scenes efforts indicate that many within the U.S. government continued to view ABM technology as an area of U.S. relative advantage and sought to use the ABM Treaty as an opportunity for gaining strategic advantage over the Soviets.
Even in establishing numerical parity, the 1972 ABM Treaty contained several concessions to proponents of advantage arms control.99 First and foremost, the United States was allowed to deploy an ABM base, which Laird and Packard hoped would provide the opportunity to gain real experience in operating ABM technology, if only on a small scale.100 But even this small-scale deployment was not guaranteed: Stability arms controllers had argued on numerous occasions that the United States ought to push the Soviets for a zero-ABM agreement.101 The crux of the issue was not so much the immediate ABM deployment but, rather, the long-term implications of ABM research and testing. In addition to the perceived wastefulness of ABM deployments, stability arms controllers argued that a zero-ABM agreement would be easier to verify, since it would prohibit not only ABM deployments but also testing of ABM system components, making covert cheating by the Soviets all but impossible.102 Advantage arms controllers generally agreed that a treaty that allowed limited ABM deployment and testing would be harder to verify but argued that the United States needed to retain its basis for ABM testing to enable possible future deployments.103 Rather than a simple ban on deployment and testing, the 1972 ABM Treaty allowed testing at specified ranges, with verification enabled by a series of definitions concerning “ABM system components,” including the allowed power-aperture ratio for search radars and the permitted testing configuration of surface-to-air missiles.104 The complexity and risk involved in this scheme demonstrate the value that advocates of advantage arms control placed on retaining ABM testing facilities — Laird, Packard, and others were willing to run higher risks of Soviet cheating if it meant the United States retained the ability to test and deploy new ABM technologies.
In addition to allowing deployment and testing of ABM system components, the ABM Treaty contained two other important concessions to advocates of advantage arms control. First, although the treaty banned testing and deployment of “exotic” ABM technologies, it did not ban research short of testing. As a result, even under the treaty the United States would be able to push the envelope of ABM technology, pursuing new sensors and interceptors considerably more advanced than the Safeguard components of the early 1970s.105 Second, the ABM Treaty contained explicit withdrawal provisions, providing each party with the right to terminate the treaty should its “supreme interests” be on the line.106 Stability arms controllers, as well as the Soviet SALT delegates, argued that such language was unnecessary, but advantage arms controllers in the National Security Council staff and Defense Department insisted on its inclusion, creating a backdoor for possible future abrogation.107 As a result, while stability arms controllers could praise the ABM Treaty for placing limits on a dangerous technology in perpetuity, advantage arms controllers saw the treaty as a temporary measure designed to hold off Soviet deployments while the United States made progress on ABM technology, awaiting a more propitious domestic political environment when full ABM deployment would be possible.108
The compromise at the heart of the ABM Treaty rested on the different time horizons of the proponents of stability and competitive arms control. Advocates of stability arms control insisted that ballistic missile defenses were, by nature, destabilizing. Their insistence on technology’s unchanging nature meant that their time horizon was short: Because the technology’s meaning was fixed, what was good for the moment was assumed to be good in perpetuity. By comparison, proponents of advantage arms control believed that the meaning of ABM technology might evolve organically as the technology itself matured and as the political context changed. The resulting ABM Treaty succeeded by juggling these differing time horizons: Stability arms controllers received concrete restrictions in the present, while advantage arms controllers satisfied themselves with possibilities for the future. By exploiting the two time horizons of the opposing schools of arms control, Nixon and Kissinger were able to build a historic compromise.
Imbued from its creation with multiple purposes, the ABM Treaty did not remain static in meaning but evolved over time. Originally a compromise between the stability and advantage schools of arms control, by the 1980s the ABM Treaty also gained a substantial disarmament logic, as proponents of disarmament embraced the treaty as a tool for reducing nuclear arsenals. Nuclear disarmers argued that the mutual vulnerability enshrined in the ABM Treaty provided the context in which steep cuts to offensive nuclear forces could take place.109 Much like advantage arms controllers, disarmers came to see the ABM Treaty as an important first step — however flawed — in a much longer contest, allowing them to join advantage and stability arms controllers in supporting the same arms-control regime, albeit for radically different reasons.
Imbued from its creation with multiple purposes, the ABM Treaty did not remain static in meaning but evolved over time.
Around the same time, advantage arms controllers began questioning whether the moment had come for the United States to cast off the ABM Treaty and rush ahead in ABM technology. Advantage arms controllers in the Reagan administration tested the treaty’s limits in order to pursue more advanced ABM technology through the Strategic Defense Initiative, arguing that the text of the ABM Treaty technically allowed the testing of certain “exotic” ABM system components, even if the negotiating record was ambiguous.110 Debate over the Strategic Defense Initiative between the disarmament, stability, and advantage factions was fierce. Nevertheless, the new “exotic” ABM technologies offered by the Strategic Defense Initiative were insufficiently mature to warrant testing or deployment. When Reagan left office, the ABM Treaty remained in place even as the United States continued to develop new ABM concepts and components.111
Over time, however, the ABM Treaty’s appeal to advantage arms controllers diminished, much as its initial pro-advantage authors had intended. By the late 1990s, many proponents of advantage arms control believed that new ABM technology had matured to the point where it was ready for serious testing and deployment.112 At the same time, evolving threats from the smaller missile arsenals of “rogue states” increased the incentive to develop even a small ABM system.113 These changes in context convinced many conservatives that the period in which the ABM Treaty contributed to U.S. national security had passed. In another example of the U.S. search for advantage in arms control, the Clinton administration initially attempted to modify the ABM Treaty to allow for further U.S. deployments.114 When Russia proved unwilling to modify the treaty to allow such deployments, the George W. Bush administration announced its intention to withdraw in December 2001, setting off a wave of ABM testing and deployment that continues today.115
The ABM Treaty’s greatest long-term strength was its ability to encompass multiple arms-control agendas, which gave it significant staying power and even allowed additional rationales to be added to the treaty over time. However, it could not survive the wholesale defection of advantage arms controllers in the 1990s and, as such, was abrogated. Proponents of stability arms control saw leaving the ABM Treaty as a betrayal of its original principles, allowing an inherently dangerous technology back into the world.116 In some ways, however, abrogation of the ABM Treaty was not a betrayal of its founding principles but, rather, their natural culmination. From the advantage point of view, the treaty had stalled any Soviet or Russian ABM program, allowing continued U.S. progress on ABM technology while waiting for a domestic political circumstance more favorable to deployment. Whether the ABM Treaty was a failure or success depends largely on one’s perspective.
To understand the history or the contemporary practice of arms control, one must recognize that arms-limitation agreements often serve multiple and contradictory purposes. In the quest to prevent war, arms limitation may assist in disarmament, stability, or advantage, each of which is rooted in a plausible explanation for what causes war and each of which can credibly claim the mantle of “arms control.” Absent consensus on which approach is most effective at preventing war, the formation of arms-control policy has been difficult. In practice, policymakers have juggled the differing time horizons of competing arms-control constituencies to produce compromises capable of advancing all three arms-control aims simultaneously, at least for a time. Recognizing the multiple purposes of arms control has critical implications for scholars and policymakers.
For scholars, recognizing arms control’s multiple goals is important for expanding an understanding of arms control and international politics more broadly. Arms control is not always a cooperative enterprise: Such agreements have served as vehicles for promoting the relative military advantages of great and minor powers. Studies that treat arms control as a purely cooperative endeavor will inevitably capture only half of the picture. For political scientists, this may involve recoding cases in which the existence of arms-control negotiations is treated ipso facto as evidence of improving cooperation between states rather than a different form of competition.117 For historians, this will require reconsidering the success or failure of arms-control negotiations in light of their ability to advance multiple agendas rather than a single logic.118 For both political scientists and historians, the flexibility of what arms control means may pose deeper questions concerning the nature of cooperation and competition in international politics and whether those concepts are mutually exclusive or interrelated.
Given the difficulties entailed in producing a unified theory of arms control, scholars would do well to consider lessons from the practical world of statecraft, where theoretical rigor is often less important than political necessity. This is especially the case when arms-control arrangements must be cobbled together out of multiple competing purposes, assembling the parallel coalitions required to prevail in complex two-level negotiations. Under these circumstances, one of the most important resources available to a would-be arms controller is time. Competing interests with different time horizons can be assembled into arms-control compromises in which each side gets what it wants but at different points. Furthermore, initial compromises on the meaning of arms control are open to reinterpretation and revision over time, as arms-control regimes gain new meanings and contexts. Recognizing that arms-control agreements can serve multiple purposes, and that these objectives might change over time, can lead to a better understanding of why some agreements last, why some end, and why those that end break down when they do. The longest-lasting arms-limitation agreements are likely to be those that can continue to embody multiple agendas while also adapting to new contexts. An agreement is unlikely to last when it no longer appears to serve a sufficiently large range of purposes and when leaders become disillusioned with the utility of arms control for achieving their objectives.
For policymakers, recognizing the existence of multiple arms-control agendas is both good and bad. The bad news is that understanding the policy implications of existing and notional arms-control agreements is extremely difficult, because agreements often serve several purposes and may have different meanings for different actors. As a result, the State and Defense Departments may have radically different understandings of a given agreement’s purpose, while foreign interlocutors are likely to have views of their own.119 Balancing these competing views is tremendously difficult, especially in periods of significant international and domestic political confusion and rancor. As in the Cold War, the goal of enacting arms control is likely to remain very challenging.
The good news is that significant opportunities exist in the contemporary U.S. political scene for effective coalition building in favor of arms-control proposals, with figures as far apart politically as John Bolton, Bill Clinton, and Derek Johnson all calling for an arms-control solution to the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.120 There is strong reason to suspect that Bolton, Clinton, and Johnson each prefer an arms-control solution to the North Korean nuclear threat for different reasons.121 Nonetheless, the fact that three prominent figures with such different views about national security affairs have arrived at a similar policy aim, even in a period of tremendous partisan division, is surely cause for hope.
As the example of the ABM Treaty demonstrates, appeals to cooperation and normative leadership are unlikely to be sufficient to advance a successful policy of arms control. Proponents of arms-control solutions would do better to cast a “big tent” on any such policy and seek to justify their prescriptions to multiple constituencies based on multiple logics. In doing so, considerable advantage can be derived by emphasizing that each constituency can receive what it wants, just at different times. Some good work has been done concerning how “progress” on arms-control issues might be organized into timelines,122 which could provide different benefits to different arms-control constituencies at different times. Such an approach stands a chance of succeeding, even in the face of tremendous division over America’s proper role in the world. The future of arms control, much like its past, will depend on effective compromise between competing purposes.
John D. Maurer is the Henry A. Kissinger Postdoctoral Fellow at International Security Studies (ISS) and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. His current book project focuses on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in the Nixon administration, drawing on the Kissinger Papers at Yale to examine how academic ideas on the nature of arms control shaped U.S. arms control policy. His work has appeared in Diplomatic History, the National Interest, and War on the Rocks. He would like to thank Fritz Bartel, Paul Braken, Ian Johnson, Paul Kennedy, Keir Lieber, Nicholas Meyers, Nuno Monteiro, Kathryn Olesko, David Painter, Eric Sand, Evan Wilson, Remco Zwetsloot, the participants in the Yale ISS Colloquium, and the three anonymous readers at Texas National Security Review for their useful feedback on earlier drafts of this article.
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