Au Revoir, Arms Control

Article excerpt

"The Rise and Fall of Arms Control" by Avis Bohlen, in Survival (Autumn 2003), International Institute for Strategic Studies, Arundel House, 13-15 Arundel St., Temple Place, London WC2R 3DX, England.

From the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 to the astonishing summit at Reykjavik in 1986, arms control treaties and talks gave the Cold War some of its most dramatic moments. But the era of strategic arms control ended in late 2001 with a whimper, not a bang, when President George W. Bush announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty--and, despite a host of dire predictions, nothing happened.

Signed 18 years after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the 1963 treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests was the first East-West nuclear agreement. "It put nuclear issues and arms control squarely on the U.S.-Soviet political agenda," observes Bohlen, a retired Foreign Service officer and former assistant secretary of state for arms control (1999-2002), though it did little to stop the growth of nuclear arsenals or even limit testing (which went underground).

During the administration of Richard Nixon, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) culminated in 1972 in the ABM treaty, which limited each side to two ground-based anti-ballistic missile sites (later reduced to one). The treaty was not the joint commitment to "mutual assured destruction" that critics imagined, Bohlen argues, but a recognition that invulnerability was impossible.

SALT II negotiations soon commenced, and President Jimmy Carter signed an agreement in 1979. But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan later that year made ratification impossible. …