Defending against New Dangers: Arms Control of Weapons of Mass Destruction in a Globalized World

By Nagl, John A. | World Affairs, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Defending against New Dangers: Arms Control of Weapons of Mass Destruction in a Globalized World


Nagl, John A., World Affairs


In their classic book Strategy and Arms Control, first published in 1961, Thomas Schelling and Morton Halperin use the term "arms control" to include "all the forms of military cooperation between potential enemies in the interest of reducing the likelihood of war, its scope and violence if it occurs, and the political and economic costs of being prepared for it."(1) They were concerned that nuclear weapons were inherently escalatory; that is, that the possession of those weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union created pressures for "first use"--using nuclear weapons against the enemy before he used them against you. Their book focused on the need to evaluate all actions taken in the name of national security in terms of whether they made the state more or less secure in light of adversaries' actions taken in response to American actions. The situation they abhorred has since become known as the "security dilemma," in which actions taken by your own state, intended to increase the security of your citizens, result in an adversary's taking countervailing actions that ultimately diminish the security of all.(2) Schelling and Halperin believed strongly that "adjustments in military postures and doctrines that induce reciprocal adjustments by a potential opponent can be of mutual benefit if they reduce the danger of a war that neither side wants, or contain its violence, or otherwise serve the security of the nation."(3)

In this article, I take a similar position. I believe that arms control is of no merit in itself, but only insofar as it diminishes the chances or the costs of future conflict or the costs of preparing for it. This article also argues that the definition of arms control must be extended to include not only military actions, but also political and economic actions intended to accomplish those objectives. It further extends the definition to include cooperation between friends as well as potential enemies in the interest of reducing the likelihood of war--for in the post-cold war world, very often potential enemies will not be other states, but individuals and substate groups with interests inimical to those of the United States. Many states share a common interest in minimizing the likelihood of war or conflict initiated by these actors, its scope and violence if it occurs, and the political and economic costs of being prepared for it. Even if not all states are prepared to cooperate in the effort, involving as many as possible, especially those with advanced research and industrial capacities, will help to limit the dangers of these emerging threats.

At the time when they were writing, Schelling and Halperin were very concerned about the impact of technology, especially nuclear technology, on the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. They believed that both unilateral U.S. actions and bilateral arms control agreements could increase the security of both superpowers, and as a result they strongly advocated both unilateral and bilateral arms control:

   In addition to what we can do unilaterally to improve our warning, to
   maintain close control over our forces, to make our forces more secure
   against attack, to avoid the need for precipitant decisions, to avoid
   accidents or the mistaken decisions that they might cause and to contain
   conflict once it starts, there may be opportunities to exchange facilities
   or understandings with our enemies, or to design and deploy our forces
   differently by agreement with our enemies who do likewise, in a way that
   enhances those aspects of technology that we like and that helps to nullify
   those that we do not.(4)

These agreements need not be formal ones, signed, negotiated, and named. Reciprocal self-restraint was a common feature of U.S.-Soviet relations during the cold war and remains one today. In the same way, informal agreements among adversaries or friendly states, which serve to accomplish the three purposes of arms control listed above, will continue to play a large--and perhaps an increasing--role in U. …

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