One way of dealing with the proliferation of weapons is through negotiated
arms control agreements, which have a long history in international
relations. The Athenians, for example, entered into a range of
arms control measures with the Spartans almost 2,500 years ago. In the
early nineteenth century, the Rush-Bagot Treaty (1817) demilitarised
the border between the United States and Canada. The number of
arms control agreements increased markedly in the twentieth century,
however. This is partly due to the advent of nuclear weapons and the
danger of a nuclear war between the superpowers. But the problem
of the horizontal spread of weapons among states – both conventional
and nuclear – has also been an important stimulus to arms control.
Arms control is different from disarmament. Advocates of the
latter argue that the only way to ensure peaceful international relations
is to eliminate weapons from the calculations of states. In contrast, the
purpose of arms control is purely regulatory. Its goal is not to construct
a new world order, but to manage the existing one. Indeed, arms
control may go hand in hand with an increase in the numbers and
types of weapons among states.
Controlling the proliferation of weapons can be accomplished in a
number of ways, and different treaties embody different strategies.
These include:
1 limiting the number and kinds of weapons that can legally be used
in war;
2 limiting the potential for destruction after war has broken out by
reducing the size of arsenals;
3 reducing the overall number of weapons;
4 banning technologies which may have a destabilising effect on the
balance of power;
5 developing confidence-building measures.
Typically, arms control agreements ban certain classes of weapons
and weapons systems, place upper limits on the number of weapons
that states may possess, limit the size and destructive power of weapons,
ban the production of weapons that will increase the likelihood of war,
and stop or at least slow the development of new technologies. They
also include new methods of communication, verification, and compliance.
Since 1945, many arms control agreements have focused on
the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, the
problems associated with anti-ballistic missile systems, and on reducing
the frequency of nuclear tests around the world. Some of the most
famous agreements include:
• the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of gas and bacteriological
• the 1959 Antarctic Treaty preventing states from using Antarctica for
military purposes;
• the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention banning the manufacture
and possession of biological weapons;
• the 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) limiting the transfer
of nuclear weapons and allied technologies to non-nuclear states;
• the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT 1) controlling the
development and use of anti-ballistic missile systems;
• the 1989 Conventional Forces in Europe (CAFE) Treaty limiting the
number of conventions arms that could be deployed in Europe;
• the 1991–92 Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START 1) reducing the
size of the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals;
• the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) requiring that
signatories destroy their chemical weapons stocks within a decade;
• the 1998 Anti-Personnel Landmines Treaty (APLT).
While there is little doubt that arms control played an important
role in reducing tensions between the superpowers during the cold
war, the history of that period reveals a number of problems with arms
control agreements. Most importantly, accurate verification is difficult.
Put bluntly, states often cheat. They sometimes fail to disclose the full
extent of their weapons stocks, build secret installations, and move their
weapons around. They can also be uncooperative and evasive with onsite
inspectors. Even with technical advances such as satellite surveillance,
it is impossible to be certain that states will abide by the terms of
their agreements. The spectre of mistrust haunts all arms control
Closely allied to this problem is the propensity of states to disregard
arms control agreements after they have signed them. Although the
United States has signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, for
example, it has developed substantial quantities of chemical weapons
since then. This raises the issue of the enforceability of arms control
agreements. How does the international community enforce arms
control agreements in a world of sovereign states? Short of armed
intervention, there are few credible options available. Sanctions, economic
inducements, and diplomatic persuasion have all been tried,
but their overall success is difficult to gauge. At any rate, even if these
sorts of coercive measures work against small, economically weak states,
it is difficult to see how the international community could enforce
such agreements against the United States, China, or Russia.
These problems highlight the extremely fragile nature of arms control
agreements. It is for this reason that a number of scholars have
expressed scepticism about their contribution to international stability.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the unequal distribution of power in the
international system. A number of countries in the Third World have
argued that arms control agreements, like the 1968 Non-Proliferation
Treaty (NPT), are a way for the First World to maintain its stranglehold
over the international system. Rather than leading to a reduction in the
incidence of war and to a lessening of international tension, arms
control ensures the continued subservience of many of the world’s less
powerful states. Whether one agrees with this view or not, it is certainly
a powerful criticism and one not likely to change in the near