Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control

January/February 2022

A Call to Arms Control

Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control
Michael Krepon
Stanford University Press
October 2021
640 pages

Reviewed by Heather Williams

Michael Krepon’s book Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control comes at the perfect time. On the one hand, 2021 was a relative boon for arms control compared to the past five years. In January, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years. Following a summit in June, they also committed to hold strategic stability dialogues to “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.” On the other hand, the past 20 years have seen a steady erosion of arms control agreements due to Russian violations and U.S. withdrawals. This trajectory raises questions about how this era should be viewed in the context of arms control history and how arms control could contribute to future security. Enter Krepon, who provides both a comprehensive historical narrative and a call to action.

Krepon’s book takes a decidedly U.S. and nuclear focus. It begins with the image of a mushroom cloud and tracks the evolution of efforts to control the bomb’s massive power from the 1946 Acheson-Lillienthal Report through New START and to today. At first glance, the book is intimidatingly long, possibly the longest book solely dedicated to arms control; but in the end, this proves to be justified. Krepon draws on original sources, including dozens of interviews with decision-makers and his personal experiences, to offer an unprecedented level of detail covering multiple cases. One feature that makes the book particularly worth the length are the personal vignettes of the key actors about their origins and family backgrounds. This had an overall humanizing effect on arms control negotiations and helps to avoid the trap of arms control becoming an abstract phenomenon. Rather, arms control is practiced by individuals with unique perspectives and experiences, all of which they bring to the business at hand.

The book makes three important contributions. First, it should become the definitive text on the topic of arms control and the volume of choice for university courses on arms control, deterrence, and nuclear policy more broadly. Although it does not dwell too long on arms control theorizing—for this, I recommend Strategy and Arms Control by Thomas Schelling and Morton Halperin, Anatomy of Mistrust by Deborah Welch Larson, and The Revolution that Failed by Brendan Rittenhouse Green—it provides a comprehensive history that puts today’s arms control challenges in context. Second, in telling such a detailed history, Krepon, albeit indirectly, provides a playbook for understanding when, why, and how arms control has succeeded in the past. This is a timely contribution. Finally, Krepon’s vision for the future of arms control is an ambitious one that may face practical challenges but should inspire scholars to engage with the first principles of arms control.

Familiar Challenges

Many of the challenges, opportunities, and experiences examined by Krepon are familiar. Perhaps the most pressing is the impact of domestic politics on potential arms control agreements. For example, the U.S. Senate seems highly unlikely to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which has languished since its signing in 1996. Krepon notes the historical importance of building blocks to achieve arms control, including bipartisanship in Washington, an acceptance of “sufficiency,” an acknowledgment of mutual vulnerability, and respect for national borders. Although Russia challenges the last of these, Congress is unlikely to acquiesce in the others.

Emerging technologies are another familiar theme throughout the book. Advanced technologies such as cyberweapons, artificial intelligence, and quantum physics have the potential to create strategic asymmetries and undermine strategic stability, thus requiring new thinking for the future of arms control. Nuclear weapons themselves were once a novel development that required rethinking the strategic landscape and inspired the first arms control agreements. During the 1950s, Krepon notes, the United States and Soviet Union carried out, on average, one nuclear test every two weeks.

Although the superpowers eventually limited nuclear testing, that was after decades of competition. Krepon observes, “The easiest arms races to stop are the ones that haven’t begun.” This might be true in theory, but unfortunately, it has not proven the case historically, with the possible exception of missile defense. The United States and Soviet Union failed to limit multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles and countless other new technologies with strategic implications. This suggests that arms control will continue to flounder as states are reluctant to place constraints on technologies that have yet to be fully developed or understood.

A final familiar historical theme is the importance of geopolitics. Ultimately, arms control reflects geopolitics more than it shapes them. In the case of the 1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) II treaty, for example, “Linkage did not fare well for either side in the SALT negotiations…. [N]either side was prepared to concede anything of value in order to gain something of equivalent value.” Given rising geopolitical tensions, particularly arms racing dynamics and regional tensions among the United States and Russia and China, the timing would seem nearly impossible for arms control at present.

An Arms Control Playbook

In the process of relating history to contemporary arms control challenges, Krepon recounts specific diplomatic maneuvers, compromises, and solutions that ultimately led to successful outcomes. Combined, they form a playbook that can point the way forward for arms control amid today’s challenges of domestic politics, emerging technologies, and geopolitical tensions.

U.S. President H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev hold a press conference at their summit in Helsinki in September 1990. (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)The first lesson is the value of building on past success. Krepon argues that the George H.W. Bush administration was able to deliver on numerous arms control agreements when they were most needed because it had two decades of experience on which to build. During the early years of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union laid important groundwork and then, in the late 1980s, were able to seize on favorable political conditions in order to agree to major arms reductions. This seems pertinent to the current climate given that, for domestic and competitive reasons, treaties are unlikely to be negotiated any time soon. Therefore, today’s arms control agenda may have to be one of preparation, as occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s, setting the stage for a time when more ambitious progress, potentially including reductions, is possible.

The second lesson is the complementarity of arms control and deterrence. The nuclear age ushered in a competition among nations with unprecedented potential consequences for humanity. Krepon describes this as “deeply unsettling” and concludes that “[d]eterrence between adversaries without some form of reassurance is unsafe.” Arms control can act as “guardrails” in tandem with deterrence. As Krepon writes, “The nuclear peace cannot count only on deterrence or on instruments of reassurance, including arms control; to be extended, the nuclear peace requires embracing both.” A consistent theme of his book is that arms control is not about numbers and has not always led to disarmament. When it did, “[d]eterrence helped produce conditions for these reductions; the reductions themselves flowed from obligations embedded in treaties.” Given the continued reliance on nuclear weapons, arms control is an essential tool.

The third lesson is that when arms control has seemed impossible, negotiators broadened the scope and focused on small steps. Historically, this has included mechanisms such as hotlines, updated hotlines with new communication technologies, technical exercises, and rapid-response initiatives such as the Nunn-Lugar Act, which was named after Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and facilitated the securing and dismantlement of Soviet-era nuclear weapons. As Krepon describes, “The nuclear peace was also nurtured by codes of conduct, tacit or explicit.” These efforts could be particularly useful in addressing the potential risks of emerging technologies and in exploring how emerging technologies could contribute to arms control, such as through verification activities. Risk reduction has been a burgeoning theme in the nuclear community, particularly with regard to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in the lead-up to the NPT review conference in January 2022. Risk reduction efforts have brought together states with nuclear weapons arsenals and those without these arsenals in a shared sense of purpose to prevent nuclear escalation and use. In the future, these efforts could include expanding crisis communication channels or increasing transparency into countries’ nuclear doctrines.

Finally, Krepon is explicit about the importance of expertise as a component of success in arms control. “Conceptualizing arms control was one predicate for success,” he writes. “Another was creating a place in the executive branch that could be staffed with experts, carry out research, conceive of proposals, champion these proposals in bureaucratic deliberations, and engage in as well as backstop negotiations.” In the early days of the nuclear age, these efforts included scholars, such as Schelling and Halperin, who offered important conceptual insights with which to explore the objectives of arms control and its relationship with security and nuclear strategy. As arms control efforts gained momentum with the U.S. government, this expertise came to include champions within administrations and Congress. Nunn and Lugar are perhaps the epitome of arms control champions who took action in the face of a pressing nuclear risk. Yet, the history of arms control is full of unsung heroes who led efforts to conclude the strategic arms limitation agreements, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and its successor, and other agreements. Krepon brings to the forefront arms control leaders such as Susan Burke, Jim Timbie, and Rose Gottemoeller, all veteran State Department officials, and drives home the message that the future of arms control will require not only a favorable geopolitical environment and diplomatic tools but also people who believe in it with relevant expertise and experience.

The Need for Norms

Krepon concludes this rich history with a vision for the future of arms control, asserting that “the numbers that matter most are zero mushroom clouds and zero nuclear tests. I propose that we seek to extend these zeroes to the 100th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” He argues that arms control should focus on sustaining the norms of no use of nuclear weapons in warfare, no further nuclear weapons testing, and no proliferation. At first glance, this emphasis on norms seems to clash with the book’s examination of mechanisms and tools. If arms control practitioners have managed historically to develop tools tailored to the strategic environment, why not simply continue this trend? Can norms replace more practical mechanisms?

Krepon’s response is that the current environment is uniquely complex and therefore requires a further broadening of arms control. This is the final piece of the Krepon Arms Control Playbook. A future promoting these three norms is not mutually exclusive from continuing to apply existing arms control mechanisms and designing new ones. Tools of reassurance can play an important role in buttressing norms and preventing escalation. One example would be a multilateral agreement with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, India, and Pakistan to observe these three norms. Krepon calls on all readers to advance the arms control mission, but in reality, enshrining these norms will first require addressing significant challenges.

Norms do not happen in a vacuum. They require entrepreneurs and a favorable security environment. At present, neither of these exist. The Biden administration is still in its early days, and to be sure, the extension of New START and the strategic stability dialogues are a significant step forward. The administration may yet offer a vision for arms control that builds on past successes, links arms control to deterrence, broadens the scope of arms control to include norms, and invests in arms control experts. If that leadership does not come from the United States, European actors may attempt to fill the void, but this can only go so far. Given that the United States possesses one of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals and is the historical champion of arms control, its leadership is essential. Favorable geopolitical relations are also vital at some point. Krepon writes that “the state of the nuclear peace depends on the state of relations between nuclear-armed rivals,” but given the rising near-peer competition and regional ambitions of Russia and China, these, too, may prove elusive.

Another challenge for a normative-based future for arms control is that norms do not always spread. Although these norms may resonate and deepen in Western democracies, they will not necessarily do the same in Moscow or Beijing. Krepon acknowledges this when he writes that “[e]ach of the five states with dynamic nuclear modernization programs has good reason to engage--as long as everyone engages.”

The United States and its NATO allies are already working to achieve a lasting arms control architecture that largely aligns with Krepon’s vision. It is based on risk reduction, crisis communication, a broad scope, and the goal of seizing opportunities when they arise. The burning question, however, is whether others will join. If they do not, how long can the United States maintain its course?

Where does that leave the playbook? Krepon’s objective is not to provide all the answers. Rather, his book is a call to action for arms control practitioners and experts to work even harder to manage the rising nuclear competition and develop creative solutions. His recommendation for observing the three norms—no use, no testing, no proliferation—through the 100th anniversary of the 1945 Hiroshima bombing is one such vision. Beyond that, he offers readers a playbook to develop other initiatives on their own.

Heather Williams is a visiting fellow with the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a senior lecturer in defense studies at King’s College London where she teaches arms control and deterrence.