U.S. Arms Control Policy in a Time Warp

By Tannenwald, Nina | Ethics & International Affairs, April 2001 | Go to article overview

U.S. Arms Control Policy in a Time Warp


Tannenwald, Nina, Ethics & International Affairs


There is much hand-wringing in the arms control trenches these days over the role and future of arms control in U.S. policy. Liberal supporters of arms control lament what they see as a decade of missed opportunities to pursue deep cuts in the world's nuclear arsenals and to strengthen the regimes for controlling the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Those on the right, perceiving grave weaknesses in Cold War--era arms control regimes, prefers to move ahead with "assertive isolationism," happily unencumbered with the comprehensive test ban or soon, they hope, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. After a promising start in arms control at the beginning of the 1990s, both sides see U.S. arms control policy drifting in purpose and slackening in momentum, with arms control officials spread thin over a proliferating agenda. Even as arms control tasks have burgeoned, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), historically often a voice of restraint on arms matters, was dismantled by a housecleaning, anti-big-government Republican Congress in 1999 and its functions folded into the State Department. Arms control officials have been asked to do more with less, and, as Brad Roberts notes, "some would prefer that they do less with less." (1)

This state of affairs has a number of causes, including the more uncertain security landscape after the end of the Cold War, a Clinton administration more interested in economic than security issues, contentious domestic politics in the United States, and a profound skepticism on the part of ideologically minded Republicans about the value of international agreements generally. The more serious underlying problem is that, even as the security climate has shifted dramatically, there has been no comparable change in U.S. government thinking about the role of nuclear weapons and arms control in security policy. The U.S. government and other nuclear-weapons states remain mired in Cold War paradigms of threat and deterrence. The Cold War reigns, not only in the astronomical military budget but in the categories and concepts we use to think about arms control and security. Most new thinking on weapons today has come from citizens' movements and nonnuclear states, not from the U.S. president or his political advisers, Pentagon nuclear planners, Congressional policymakers, or other nuclear states.

In this essay, I review the current state of arms control and consider some emerging trends. I make three arguments. First, the current posture of the U.S. government is self-defeating. Arms control remains a central tool for enhancing U.S. security, but if arms control efforts are to succeed, the U.S. government must seriously reconsider the role of nuclear deterrence. Continued reliance on a nuclear threat and large nuclear arsenals undermines U.S. efforts to stem weapons proliferation, ultimately the greatest long-term security threat to the United States. Moreover, any global arms control scheme that continues to enshrine nuclear deterrence for some states but not for others is probably unsustainable and unstable over the long haul.

Second, the global arms control process is changing in important ways. It is becoming more transnational and pluralistic, and the major powers no longer entirely control the agenda. Citizens' movements, small and medium-sized states, and international organizations are increasingly asserting themselves in the arms control process and defining the agenda. This creates new sources of change but also new challenges for the United States.

Third, what is ultimately required for successful arms control is a fundamental cognitive and normative shift in how we think about weapons and their role. Specifically, arms control and disarmament will not be effective over the long run until discussions about weapons are removed from the exclusive grip and prerogative of a narrow national security discourse. If the discourse about weapons is recast as one of environmental, medical, and humanitarian issues rather than simply one of national security, it may be easier to ban and regulate weapons. …

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