Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Limits of Arms Control Treaties

Published in The Washington Times on November 14, 1999


President Clinton’s shrill outcry over the Senate’s refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty recalls Woodrow Wilson’s plea in 1919 for his Senate to support the League of Nations: “Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world? The stage is set…by the hand of God.”

Clinton didn’t invoke the Almighty, but his latest expression of “affirmative multilateralism” demonstrates that Wilson’s confidence in the power of words in solemn international covenants to shape the future is not dead.

The president called the Senate vote reckless, partisan, dubious, unconscionable, and inexcusable—“an amazing rebuke” to our allies, a bad example for nuclear capable states, and a risk to “the safety of the American people and the world.” And when China’s leaders voiced “deep regret” over the “terrible example” set by the Senate, the irony was palpable.

But history has rendered a different verdict. International arms control efforts since the First World War suggests that the Senate’s rejection of the Test Ban Treaty will do no harm. On the contrary, it can strike a blow for realism and for peace.

Consider the record.

The American-sponsored Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 “outlawing war as an instrument of national policy” and signed by sixty-two governments only encouraged utopian illusions. The 1930 London Naval Reduction Treaty limited British and U.S. tonnage, but didn’t prevent Japan from attacking Pearl Harbor. Nor did the League’s limit on excessive national arms stop Hitler from overrunning Europe.

In the nuclear era as well, formally negotiated multilateral efforts have been singularly ineffective. Neither the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty nor the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban treaty stopped India and Pakistan from conducting their nuclear tests. Nor will these treaties prevent other states, propelled by prestige or security concerns, from exercising the nuclear option.

Excessive confidence in comprehensive arms control measures flies in the face of political reality and downplays America’s unilateral responsibilities for peace and security. Everyone wants to avoid nuclear war. The question is how.

Here, again, our experience since Hiroshima points the way. The two greatest international achievements of the past fifty years—avoiding nuclear war and the collapse of the Soviet Union—were accomplished without assistance from the UN or any multinational arms treaty, but by the responsible exercise of U.S. military power and astute diplomacy.

The United States, supported by NATO, prevented nuclear war by building an arsenal strong enough to deter a first strike by the Soviet Union. This policy of mutual deterrence ensured a half century of great-power peace. As Churchill had predicted: “Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.”

In the same vein, the single greatest nuclear arms reduction in history was achieved not by international action, but by unilateral U.S. policies. In September 1983, in the face of intense opposition in Europe and America, Ronald Reagan sent Pershing II missiles to Europe to counter the Soviet SS-20s, then targeted on cities from Oslo to Istanbul. With the Pershing IIs in place, Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 agreed to eliminate all such medium-range missiles. Both sides then jettisoned this highly destabilizing system and the world became a safer place.

This singular accomplishment came about not through years of formal negotiation with Moscow or by invoking an international treaty. Reagan’s forthright deployment of the Pershing IIs demonstrated that governments negotiate more effectively by unilateral action than by words alone or by treaties.

Treaties signed by many governments are inherently flawed because they penalize the law abiding states and reward scofflaw or predatory regimes. Multilateral covenants also encourage utopian expectations and invite demagoguery.

Since additional states, including some rogue regimes, will acquire nuclear arms and means for delivering them, what should the United States do? Clearly, we should not rely on unenforceable treaties banning acquisition or testing. Instead, we should attempt to encourage responsible behavior by our example and by making it imprudent for other powers to expand their domain by military force.

By judicious policies of reward and denial, we can make nuclear war less likely, but only if we maintain a strong, reliable, and flexible nuclear arsenal to deter egregious breaches of the peace. We should also build a national missile defense system to protect our people against potential attacks from rogue regimes, e.g., Iraq, Libya, North Korea, or Iran.

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