"I learned so much about arms control and disarmament at ACA! I learned more about arms control here in four months than I had in all three years at my college."

– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
Intern, Fall 2016
December 16, 2016
Letters to the Editor

Latest ACA Resources

The Future of Arms Control

It was an honor to have our book, The Future of Arms Control, reviewed in the March issue of Arms Control Today by such a distinguished scholar as John Steinbruner. We are grateful that he concludes that the book is worth reading. We further appreciate that Arms Control Today readers were given the opportunity to read his diverging views on where arms control should evolve—after all, he has developed as creative and important ideas in this subject area as anyone in the world in the last 30 years. But he misrepresents several of our arguments, compelling us to respond.

First, Steinbruner wrongly suggests that the pursuit of American political compromise drives most of our thinking. Our analytical approach is to evaluate scores of detailed proposals on their merits, honestly if imperfectly, not to identify a “left” and a “right” position and steer tentatively between the two.

Still, we do believe there is a need for the left and right in the United States to honestly re-examine their own views and to consider what the other has to offer, at the same time as both also evaluate entirely new approaches. Few can doubt that such cross-fertilization has been absent in the arms control arena in recent years. Further, few can doubt that, without strong and broad American support for arms control, the enterprise cannot have a promising future.

Steinbruner suggests we should anticipate deep shifts in the American political scene that might make a radically different arms control program possible, but we prefer not to wait for the catastrophe that would probably be required to make that achievable. Nor is it obvious that a transparency-based regime of the type he prefers would work; among other challenges, effective monitoring and enforcement would both be extremely difficult to ensure.

Second, Steinbruner suggests that our approach to arms control is indifferent to international law and that we accept a situation in which the United States “unilaterally determines who will be protected and who will be threatened.” In fact, we sought to devise enforcement criteria that could attract broad international support and avoid the types of errors that plagued the U.S. march to war against Iraq in 2003. Yet, we recognize that a successful approach to compliance—an essential element of any international legal regime that is to have real meaning—will not be universally embraced in each specific situation and argue carefully for why such universality is not essential. That is different from endorsing American unilateralism.

In fact, we support a number of measures to strengthen traditional nuclear arms control and international law. We advocate further deep and transparent, if informal, cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, unconditional and prompt ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a broadening of cooperative threat reduction activities, and broad changes in American and Russian alert practices. Likewise, we argue for substantial restraint in any moves toward greater military uses of space and limits on the scale of American missile defense deployments.


Michael A. Levi is a nonresident science fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, and a doctoral candidate in war studies at King’s College, London. Michael E. O’Hanlon is a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

John Steinbruner Responds:

I appreciate and reciprocate Michael Levi’s and Michael O’Hanlon’s expressions of personal respect in conveying their objections to my review of their book. I also regret any misrepresentation of their arguments. I do believe the text of their book invites the comments I made, however, and hence that their clarification is generally helpful.

Perhaps the basic matter of contention has to do with a practical question: the extent to which the future of arms control will be determined by political sentiment or by force of circumstance. Judgments on that point differ for legitimate reasons. Hopefully, a discussion of those differences will prove to be enlightening.

Getting Verification Wrong

The views of Paula DeSutter on verification and compliance issues, as reported in the April issue of Arms Control Today in the article “The Bush Administration and Verification,” are patronizing, wrong, or ill considered. Effective verification must patently draw on all of the tools at its command, including multilateral instruments, national means, and increasingly, open and nongovernmental sources.

The U.S. assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance lectures other states about broadening their definition of “national technical means” to include less technologically advanced “methods” and urges them to rely more on these and less on international verification bodies. In fact, national technical means is an American term that has never sat comfortably with other states, especially the less technically well-endowed. Such states have little choice but to rely on nontechnical means, like human intelligence (also known as espionage) and open source information, and on international verification systems. The whole point of international systems is that they distribute the costs and benefits of verification and increase the number of stakeholders in effectively verified compliance.

That’s why technically advanced countries that count themselves among the strongest proponents of multilateral systems like Australia, Japan, and Sweden also maintain their own national capacities, as they realize that the more sources of compliance-relevant information they have, the better their security will be.

As for DeSutter’s claim that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are not able to make compliance judgments, why then is the IAEA’s Board of Governors spending so much time considering whether Iran has complied with its safeguards obligations? Likewise, in relation to the OPCW, I would direct DeSutter to Article 8, Paragraph 35 of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which gives the organization’s Executive Council the power to “consider any issue or matter within its competence,” including “concerns regarding compliance, and cases of noncompliance.” Does she imagine that the council, which consists of 41 CWC states-parties, will just have a little chat about any serious noncompliance case that comes before it? The council is empowered to reach a noncompliance determination and to take action, including sending the matter to the Security Council.

DeSutter’s description of the proposed Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) draft protocol as a “feel-good agreement” is simply preposterous. Even if the Bush administration didn’t fancy the declaration provisions and the proposed “visits” to bio-facilities, perceiving them as threats to U.S. commercial and national security interests, the draft contained a perfectly feasible mechanism for investigating alleged use of biological weapons. Indeed, this idea was such a good one that President George W. Bush included it in his raft of proposals for alternatives to the BWC protocol.

The Bush administration’s verification policy is so riven with contradictions and absurdities that one can only sympathize with the Department of State’s valiant, tortuous attempts to explain and promote it.

Trevor Findlay is director of the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance at Carleton University, Ottawa.