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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Can Arms Control Be Revived?
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The Future of Arms Control, by Michael A. Levi and Michael E. O'Hanlon, Brookings Institution Press, 2005, 190 pp.

John D. Steinbruner

Michael Levi and Michael O’Hanlon claim that arms control has been rendered “nearly moribund” as the consequence of a political impasse in the United States between proponents and detractors, the indifference of the American public, and the neglect of elected U.S. politicians. They propose to rescue the enterprise from that regrettable state by brokering reasonable compromise between the warring factions or, failing that, by serving as arbiters of an intermediate outcome.

The program of compromise advanced in the book would be at least moderately constructive if it were to succeed, but there are strong reasons to doubt its prospects. Both their diagnosis and their remedy implicitly assume that the future of arms control will largely be determined by the evolution of U.S. political attitudes, and that is a conceit unlikely to survive the relentless pressure of global interest.

Properly understood, arms control is a necessary component of the general rule of law and, as such, is a vital interest of all countries of the world, the United States included. Most of those countries recognize that their security depends on legal regulation far more than on their own military capability and will predictably defend the central provisions of international restraint with the tenacity that their dependence requires.

U.S. security policy is currently dominated by a political faction that rejects any meaningful dependence on legal regulation and asserts the right to initiate military action on behalf of national interest regardless of international legal justification. The American electorate, still heavily affected by the events of September 11, appears to have endorsed that attitude in the recent election. However, when asked individually, a solid majority considers international regulation to be important and supports both the basic principles and the major legal instruments involved. Over the longer term, it is reasonable to expect that strong global interest in legal restraint will discipline nationalist political sentiment and will shape the future of arms control.

Within its predominantly American focus, the Levi and O’Hanlon book pursues its compromise program in concise, informative fashion. It reviews the main arguments being advanced in the United States and provides the technical and political details essential to understanding those arguments. That makes it a valuable resource on the topic that will have some endurance, because the arguments in question will themselves endure.

The attempt to arbitrate, however, is less useful. The authors offer summary judgments on the various matters of contention as an appellate court might do, but those judgments depend too much on surface plausibility to be broadly convincing. Neither they nor anyone else can validly claim to settle security disputes on the basis of personal authority, and the reasoning behind their judgments is not elaborated in the detail that decisive persuasion would require.

As a consequence, the compromise program offered in the book has limited prospect even within the United States. Neither the advocates nor the opponents of arms control are likely to accept the characterization of their positions, nor will they repudiate the ideological commitments accused of causing the impasse. Those who are genuinely distracted or willfully negligent are unlikely to rally to the call for compromise.

In their leading illustration, for example, Levi and O’Hanlon recommend that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) be ratified—a gesture to the faithful—but also recommend that efforts to impose further restraint on existing nuclear weapons be abandoned—reassurance for the dissidents. In fact, it is particularly unlikely that the intense minority that has long opposed the CTBT will reconsider in the spirit of accommodation they propose or that the majority who passively support the treaty in political polls will actively insist on ratification. Were the future of arms control to depend on the impulse for bipartisan compromise in the United States, it would be in serious trouble indeed.

Moreover, the compromise program offered has yet more limited prospects in international context. Levi and O’Hanlon plausibly argue that preventing terrorist access to mass destruction technologies ought to be the primary arms control objective. They correctly note that nuclear explosives and biological pathogens are the principal concerns in that regard. They also constructively suggest that extended security guarantees are an important incentive for strengthening proliferation controls over these two technologies.

Yet, it is wildly impractical to imagine, as they do, that impenetrable barriers to proliferation can be constructed and high degrees of control over such technologies and materials can be achieved worldwide while the United States pursues decisive military superiority and unilaterally determines who will be protected and who threatened by the advantage acquired. It is especially impractical to imagine such a policy working if the principal incentives—security guarantees—are to be withheld from the politically troublesome cases, such as North Korea and Iran, where they are most needed. This approach might well reflect the current limits of domestic consensus, but it would forfeit international legitimacy at the outset and virtually guarantee that mass destruction technologies would eventually proliferate in reaction.

If global security interest and international political sentiment are taken into account, as they will ultimately have to be, it is fairly obvious that ensuring advanced standards of managerial control over dangerous materials and mass destruction technologies requires that prevailing deterrent practices be radically altered. The primary source of danger to the United States is not the deliberate attack against which deterrent forces are directed but rather the various failures of control that might emerge from the degraded command system that Russia inherited from the Soviet Union along with its large arsenal of weapons and nuclear explosive materials.

The internal problems of that system present both an opportunity and an imperative to establish internationalized standards of accounting and physical security, but Russia cannot reasonably accept the degree of transparency involved while it is being continuously subjected to a progressively improving preemptive attack threat from the United States. Russia will assuredly judge that threat in terms of operational potential rather than declared intention.

Those considerations generate an extensive strategic arms control agenda, on behalf of proliferation control, far beyond what Levi and O’Hanlon have included in their compromise program, in particular—more rapid and more extensive reduction of strategic force deployments than currently planned, comprehensive de-alerting of the remaining forces, fundamental redesign of force operations, and extensive verification provisions.

All of that is admittedly far beyond what the U.S. political system is currently willing to contemplate, but it would probably not take much of a scare to change prevailing attitudes. Clearly, the United States does not need today’s massive deterrent force to assure its own security. In fact, it is far more threatened than protected by legacy deterrent practices. Because nuclear weapons are the only immediately available technology that can damage the United States on a strategic scale, the underlying U.S. interest is to minimize global utilization of that technology and to set very strict controls on those applications that must be tolerated. Current political sentiment to the contrary notwithstanding, it is reasonable to believe that an underlying interest of that magnitude will ultimately impose itself, and it is important to prepare for the moment when that realization dawns.

Beyond that, it is also important to understand that an agenda responsive to emerging global circumstances will involve much more than an extension of traditional arms control measures or even the termination of legacy deterrent practices. It is evident that the security problems of principal concern have changed from the massive military operations encountered and feared during the 20th century to smaller, more clandestine operations, whose potential was demonstrated in September 2001. Events of that sort pose radically different problems of detection and reaction. In particular, the possibility that strategic terrorists might successfully use mass destruction technology presents imperatives of prevention for which nuclear deterrent capabilities are at best irrelevant and traditional military operations only slightly more applicable. To be sure, terrorists can readily be eliminated if they can be found, but it would be foolish to rely on finding them in time if they gain access to nuclear explosives or especially virulent pathogens. The overriding interest is to regulate access and use of these technologies.

We can presume or at least hope that many of the measures that will eventually provide meaningful protection have yet to be devised. Further, it is prudent to assume that when they are devised they will be as fiercely debated as the traditional provisions of arms control have been. Nonetheless, the future is not entirely a mystery. We can anticipate that managerial control over mass destruction technology will replace deterrent display as the dominant operational objective. We can expect that continuous monitoring practices will be extensively developed and globally applied to document compliance with universal standards of control; that monitoring information will be deliberately exchanged and thus legally acquired, in order to convey assurance of responsible control; that organized transparency will become a more important method of protection than security classification; and finally, that these principles and methods will become the central provisions of arms control.

The Levi and O’Hanlon book discusses some of these measures, but in adhering to the purpose of domestic compromise, it does not present them as the visionary conception they need to become. More fundamentally, their program does not adequately engage the inevitable central problem, namely, the forms of restraint and the requirements for reassurance that are to be applied to the United States as the predominant locus of military capability.

Those are important and probably crippling limitations for the program of compromise presented, but the value of the book transcends those limitations. It lucidly raises immediate practical questions that no one is in position to settle and thereby promotes the further thought that will be necessary. That alone is good reason for appreciation.

John D. Steinbruner is Director of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland (CISSM).

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