The Accomplishments of Conventional Arms Control

Berlin Seminars on Conventional Arms Control, June 5-7, 2007

Prepared Remarks by Wade Boese, Research Director, Arms Control Association

Controlling conventional arms is a small slice of the issues covered by my organization, but I think it is one of the more critical and important ones even if it does not frequently capture the headlines or captivate the public's imagination so much as efforts to stem the proliferation of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s April 26 speech threatening a possible Russian moratorium or suspension of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty changed that, at least for a day. Then, the media’s, as well as the world’s, focus quickly returned to the U.S.-Russian sparring over the United States’ poorly handled and premature plan to base strategic missile interceptors in Europe. I fear the issue of conventional arms control will only reemerge again if next week’s extraordinary CFE Treaty meeting fails spectacularly. For example, if Russia announces its intention to move ahead with suspending implementation of the accord. Perhaps, the old adage that “no news is good news” applies to conventional arms control.

Still, it is unfortunate that conventional arms control issues receive such relatively slim attention compared to that trio of armaments collectively known as weapons of mass destruction. By no means am I suggesting that those three types of arms do not warrant significant consideration. Rather, conventional arms issues are deserving of more attention than they currently receive. To be sure, biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons have the potential to cause mass destruction, inflict widespread human death and suffering, and impose severe economic costs upon society. But conventional arms have been used to do all of these terrible things for centuries and continue to spread misery on a daily basis in some parts of the world.

Indeed, that is why conventional arms control has such a long history. It stretches as far back as reported attempts to limit the use crossbows in the 12th Century up through the naval treaties of the 1920s to today's Norwegian-led initiative to regulate the use of cluster munitions. I will spare you a comprehensive accounting and assessments of all these past efforts. Instead, I will focus my remarks on more modern era agreements.

When assessing these modern agreements, I think they can be divided into two general categories. There were those negotiated for primarily political-military reasons and those driven more by humanitarian and moral considerations.

The first category encompasses those agreements that we have been focusing on for the past few days: the 1990 CFE Treaty and the 1999 Adapted CFE Treaty (which has yet to enter into force), the 1996 Sub-Regional Agreement, the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, and the Vienna documents. One could also include the 40-member Wassenaar Arrangement on dual-use and conventional export controls and the UN Register of Conventional Arms, which asks countries to volunteer information on their annual imports and exports of tanks, armored combat vehicles (ACVs), large-caliber artillery, attack helicopters, combat aircraft, warships, and missiles and missile systems. Countries inclined to do so may also submit data on their trade in small arms and light weapons.

The second category includes the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and its five protocols dealing with such arms as blinding lasers, booby-traps, incendiary weapons, and explosive remnants of war. This category also includes the 1997 Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel landmines, the 1998 EU Code of Conduct on arms transfers, the 2001 UN Program of Action on illicit small arms and light weapons, and the current so-called Oslo Process on cluster munitions.

This conference has primarily focused on the first category so my remarks generally will as well. But this is not to diminish the value of the second category or to suggest they lack achievements. Both categories have quantifiable accomplishments:

Implementation of the CFE Treaty led to the destruction of more than 70,000 pieces of treaty limited equipment: battle tanks, ACVs, heavy artillery, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters. This total reflects recent NATO statements that more than 60,000 arms have been destroyed under the treaty, as well as the fact that Russia unilaterally destroyed some 14,500 arms moved out of the treaty’s area of application (between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains) before the CFE Treaty’s entry into force. (All told, Moscow moved some 57,000 weapons out of the treaty’s area of application before the accord entered into force. It also claimed unilaterally to have destroyed 10,000 weapons and converted another 7,000 weapons.)

Similarly, the Sub-Regional Agreement has resulted in the destruction of nearly 9,000 heavy weapons. Modeled on the CFE Treaty, this agreement caps the battle tanks, ACVs, heavy artillery, attack helicopters, and combat aircraft holdings of Croatia, the former Republic of Yugoslavia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina (comprised of the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska).

The Ottawa Convention, or Mine Ban Treaty, has resulted in the destruction of more than 38 million anti-personnel landmines. This total is still growing with the help of international demining funding that has surpassed $2 billion since the treaty’s negotiation. I would be remiss if I did not note that the United States, even though it has declined to join the treaty, has been the largest spender on mine action worldwide. Since 1992, Washington has provided some $1.1 billion in “humanitarian mine action” funding, according to the Department of State.

The destruction of millions of weapons that might have otherwise injured, maimed, or killed is, therefore, one of the most significant accomplishments of conventional arms control.

But this is not the end in and of itself of conventional arms control. Conventional arms control (and I’m referring to both categories of modern agreements) ultimately is not about the machines, metal, or hardware, but about the human dimension. Specifically, human emotions. Conventional arms control is about making people feel safe and secure by helping to reduce tensions and threats while building confidence and trust. For those who might object that we live in a world of states or what we are speaking about is national security or military power, I would argue that states, governments, and militaries are comprised of people. And it’s their ambitions, concerns, interests, and fears that drive policy.

In addition to the actual destruction or limitation of armaments, I would identify at least a half-dozen ways that conventional arms control helps make people feel safer and more secure:

    1. increases transparency (approximately 5,000 inspections have been conducted under the CFE Treaty regime, while approximately 1,000 have been carried out under the Sub-Regional Agreement)
    2. fosters predictability
    3. establishes norms of behavior
    4. creates accountability
    5. reallocates spending from the military to the civil sector
    6. humanizes adversaries

All of these help to minimize worst-case decision-making and planning, while also creating mechanisms that provide warning time to detect and respond to developments that could jeopardize security.

Moving from the theoretical to the practical, what has conventional arms control accomplished in the real world?

Most notably, the Vienna Documents and the CFE Treaty, in particular, helped ease Europe, and I would say the world, through a dramatic time of transition. Within a year of the CFE Treaty’s signature, the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Yet, the framework of limits helped manage the breakup and reallocation of these huge military machines. These limits, which not only applied to how much weaponry could be stationed in the treaty area but also where it could be deployed, all but eliminated the possibility of a large-scale, surprise attack in Europe by preventing the concentration or massing of forces in the continent’s center and its northern and southern flanks. This regime further impeded the possibility of any rapid reconstitution of forces by a country in a way that would threaten its neighbors.

It also helped provide reassurance that a united Germany would not become a destabilizing military powerhouse in the future. Specifically, East Germany and West Germany agreed that their combined forces would not exceed the limits previously allocated to West Germany.

Other positive effects of the CFE regime include allowing the United States to significantly reduce its military presence on the continent. U.S. forces have declined from some 304,000 troops in the early 1990s to approximately 89,000 today. Lessening the armaments (and tensions) in Europe also enabled billions of dollars to be shifted from the military realm to other government spending. In the 1990s, U.S. officials frequently referred to the “peace dividend” that was enabled, in part, by agreements such as the CFE Treaty. (It should not be forgotten that a key factor motivating Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev to negotiate the CFE Treaty in the first place was to reduce the military burden on the stressed Soviet economy.)

So it was not without good reason that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently praised the CFE Treaty as “one of the most important treaties of the 20th Century.” I would say this is particularly noteworthy given the Bush administration’s general disdain for treaties and legally-binding agreements.

Elsewhere in Europe, the Sub-Regional Agreement has helped reduce tensions in the Balkans and prevented another conflict from breaking out between the warring parties. It has also helped initiate the grudging, albeit incomplete, merger of the armed forces of the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska into a single military for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Ottawa Convention has committed 153 countries to forswear anti-personnel landmines.

I could go on for each agreement that I have previously noted, but perhaps the largest success is that conventional arms control has made or helped millions of people feel safer. The prospect of another large-scale conventional war with clashing armies of tanks and fighter jets in the heart of Europe would probably strike most Europeans today as an absurd impossibility. On a smaller, yet no less important, scale, families seeking clean water in Africa or farmers working their fields in Southeast Asia may no longer have to fear triggering a landmine because of international humanitarian demining activities.

How these accomplishments have been made possible is best summed by a quote about the CFE Treaty, although I think it applies to all conventional arms control efforts. Joseph P. Harahan, a historian with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, wrote in the book, On-Site Inspections Under the CFE Treaty, “A rule of law was replacing the rule of force.” I think it is worth repeating, “A rule of law was replacing the rule of force.”


Despite these notable achievements, conventional arms control in practice is imperfect and has its limitations. It’s important to remember that conventional arms control does not happen in a vacuum and cannot alone solve underlying political problems or tensions. Arms control is just one tool to help manage competing or uneasy military relationships, and its affect on deeper sources of conflict or distrust should not be overestimated. Although this may be an obvious point, it also should be noted that arms control agreements are designed primarily to benefit those who are party to any agreement and advantages may not necessarily spill over to others.

Still, it should be readily apparent to all that the current European security regime has not made all countries feel secure or integrated, particularly Russia. Moscow’s recent rhetoric about targeting Europe with missiles again were the United States to proceed with its missile defense basing plans for Poland and the Czech Republic could be chalked up partially to domestic politics. Talk of suspending CFE Treaty implementation and abrogating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty could also be seen in the same light. But this explanation would ignore a chain of developments that Moscow sees as eroding its influence and hemming it in: two rounds of NATO expansion encompassing 10 new countries, including former republics of the Soviet Union; the U.S. Desert Fox strikes in Iraq; NATO’s intervention in Kosovo; U.S. abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; new U.S. relations with Central Asian states; U.S. plans for bases in Bulgaria and Romania; U.S. disinterest in additional legally-binding strategic nuclear reduction agreements; continued deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe; and expansive U.S. missile defense plans. To be sure, the 10 missile interceptors planned for Poland pose no threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrent, but Moscow perceives this deployment as just the tip of the iceberg. With regard to the CFE regime, the Kremlin could complete the withdrawal of its residual forces in Georgia and Moldova and pave the way for the Adapted CFE Treaty to enter into force, which would address many of Moscow’s current complaints about the regime’s unfairness. (I personally believe that NATO member’s should not sacrifice the principle of host-nation consent or the sovereignty of Georgia and Moldova for the sake of the Adapted CFE Treaty, but I think there must be some creative way for NATO members to start their ratification processes for the Adapted CFE Treaty to show progress to Russia, while also making clear that the deposit of instruments of ratification would still hinge upon Russia’s completion of its pledged withdrawals.)

Nevertheless, the perspective from Moscow is one of encirclement and exclusion. Western countries hold some responsibility for helping to change this view. In his 1995 book on the CFE Treaty, Shaping Europe’s Military Order, former Bush administration National Security Council official Richard Falkenrath wrote, “in the long run, European security depends not on maximizing Russian military vulnerability, but minimizing Russian insecurity.”

Another shortcoming of the current European security architecture was its failure to prevent intrastate conflicts, including the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Russia’s war in Chechnya, and the secessionist movements in Georgia and Moldova. Certainly, Yugoslavia was not party to the CFE Treaty, but it was a member of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the predecessor of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). The Sub-Regional Agreement has prevented new hostilities from breaking out in the Balkans, but the CFE Treaty and Vienna Documents have had little affect on resolving the outstanding territorial conflicts in Europe, including the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

A broader failure of conventional arms control is the inability of countries to rein in the global arms trade. Although the annual value of arms transfers totals about half that of the Cold War period, business in the global weapons bazaar remains brisk and robust. Actually, it is growing. An authoritative annual arms sales report published by the Congressional Research Service reported that arms sales in 2005 reached their highest tally ($44 billion) in the past eight years. In addition, last year’s UN Register data for 2005 revealed one of the highest weapons trade totals (nearly 12,000 weapons exports) in the register’s history. These sums are likely to continue climbing when data for 2006 is released later this year. I feel confident in making such a prediction because the United States posted more than $20 billion in proposed Foreign Military Sales in 2006, easily surpassing totals over the last several years.

The grim reality is that arms continue to flow to undemocratic regimes with poor human rights record, excessive military spending, and little civilian control over the military. Often, recipients are located in regions of tensions. Such accumulations could have severe consequences for future international peace and stability.

The world supposedly had learned this lesson before. It should be recalled that the United States and the other four permanent members of the Security Council launched global arms trade talks soon after conclusion of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The motivation for this effort stemmed from Iraq’s importation of some $40 billion dollars worth of foreign weaponry in the decade prior to its invasion of Kuwait. Yet, these talks soon collapsed when the United States announced the sale of 150 F-16 combat aircraft to Taiwan, upsetting China. And global arms sellers, including the United States, continued with business as usual. Now, 15 years after countries claimed to have seen the danger of letting Iraq procure huge amounts of arms, its Middle Eastern neighbor (and current Western ally in the region) Saudi Arabia has acquired more than $100 billion in foreign armaments.

Future Steps

Although my remarks were supposed to focus on the accomplishments of conventional arms control, I feel obligated to also talk about its shortcomings. In that same vein, I want to briefly touch upon what some of the future priorities in conventional arms control should be.

First and foremost, CFE states-parties need to work to bring the Adapted Treaty into force. Easier said than done, but clearly the existing regime with its bloc-to-bloc structure no longer reflects today’s realities and the sooner the Adapted Treaty is brought into force, the better. As alluded to before, I believe NATO members should be creative in starting ratification of the Adapted Treaty without finalizing their national processes until Russia fulfills its withdrawal commitments. NATO members should also be creative in trying to find ways to help speed up and ease Russia’s withdrawal from Georgia and Moldova, including paying for the destruction of the 20,000 metric ton stockpile of ammunition currently guarded by Russian troops in Moldova’s Transdniestria region and providing international peacekeepers to Georgia and Moldova to replace Russian forces.

Taking the optimistic view that the Adapted Treaty will one day enter into force, enabling additional countries to join the regime, I would also urge CFE states-parties to make room under the existing cumulative weapons ceilings for additional members rather than increasing the overall weapon ceilings to accommodate new states-parties. This should be entirely possible. All told, current cumulative CFE states-parties’ holdings are 42,000 weapons below the cumulative national entitlements under the Adapted Treaty. In other words, states-parties with existing headroom should agree to reduce their entitlements to better mirror their actual holdings and new members should make use of the “spare” weapon allocations without leading to an increase in the cumulative national entitlements under the Adapted Treaty.

Another top priority should be the negotiation of an Arms Trade Treaty. The United Kingdom spearheaded adoption last year of a UN General Assembly resolution to initiate talks on such an instrument in 2008. The United States publicly opposed this effort and some other major arms sellers, such as China and Russia, and key arms buyers, such as states in the Middle East, abstained from the vote. Yet, a group of governmental experts will be convened in 2008 to begin exploring options for establishing a common set of criteria or standards for international arms transfers. Although, the United States warns that the best that can result will be standards of the lowest common denominator, those would still be a step up from today’s unregulated arms market where just about anything goes with little shame. For example, Russia acknowledged in its submission to the UN Register of Conventional Arms last year that it supplied a dozen attack helicopters to Sudan the previous year. Any standards or criteria established through an Arms Trade Treaty should be treated as a floor and not a ceiling.

Conclusion of an instrument restricting or banning the use of cluster munitions would also be a welcome step. It appears that countries might have two options in proceeding on the cluster munitions issue: the Oslo Process and an emerging effort, spurred in part by Germany, through the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). Governments should be careful to avoid having these two efforts compete with and detract from each other. They must keep their attention focused on the overarching objective which is diminishing the danger of cluster munitions to civilians and noncombatants.

Within the CCW, governments should also work to complete a protocol limiting the use of anti-vehicle mines. Similar to anti-personnel landmines, anti-vehicle landmines can also have harmful humanitarian consequences. China, Russia, Pakistan, and a few other countries should stop blocking negotiation of this worthwhile measure.

All countries need to be more aggressive in curbing missile proliferation. Although many associate missiles with biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons, missiles themselves are conventional weapons. However, the 34-member Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is derided by many as a supplier cartel, while adherence to and implementation of the more inclusive Hague Code of Conduct has been lackluster. Countries should seek to reinvigorate both regimes. A necessary step will be for the United States to exercise restraint in its own missile developments. For example, the Bush administration’s strong support for missile defense has led it to consider carving out exemptions under the MTCR for transfers of “defensive” interceptors. Yet, missile interceptors from a technical standpoint are essentially the same as the “offensive” missiles that they are designed to stop. U.S. officials should be careful that their solution (promoting and sharing missile defenses) does not contribute to the problem (the spread of missile technologies).

A more modest, but certainly achievable, step is to broaden participation in the UN Register of Conventional Arms. Many Arab and African countries do not provide annual submissions to the register. This is unfortunate because this basic act of transparency could be very helpful in mitigating tensions between neighbors and can serve as a starting point for dialogue between governments about their military purchases and requirements.

Another recommendation is actually a call for nonaction. EU countries should refrain from lifting their current arms and dual-use trade restrictions on China. Beijing is a growing and important power, but it also shrouds its domestic military plans and programs in secrecy, which is troublesome and disconcerting for many of its neighbors throughout the Asia-Pacific region, not to mention the United States. Moreover, China itself has not been a responsible exporter of military technologies and weapons. For example, Beijing is a current weapons supplier to Sudan.

Finally, countries in different regions of the world should look at the current European security architecture and see if there are any elements that might be applicable to enhancing security and building trust in their regions. To be sure, the European model cannot be one that is adopted wholesale by other regions because conditions, cultures, experiences, and capabilities vary greatly. Still, there might be some mechanisms or principles of European security that could benefit countries outside Europe.

Key Challenges

Making progress on the conventional arms control measures above will require overcoming some key challenges.

A major test will be for countries to reach mutual understandings of what constitutes acceptable and sufficient levels of weapons holdings that make one secure, while not threatening others in return. Governments should keep in mind that arms levels do not have to be equal for mutual security and benefits. The unequal national arms limits of the CFE Treaty and the Sub-Regional Agreement serve as good examples.

Also looming large are the hurdles created by the use of arms transfers as tools of diplomacy and alliance building, not to mention as a source of profit. Fostering military-to-military relationships or closer political ties are certainly worthwhile goals but arms do not have to be the glue that seals the bond. Greater focus should be placed on military training and humanitarian assistance because values and goodwill have more enduring value than a piece of military hardware which typically has a lifespan measured in years.

Another key challenge is overcoming the secrecy that cloaks security and military matters worldwide. Although many governments see secrecy as a way to protect their security, it can be a double-edged sword. Potential adversaries unsure about one another’s capabilities and intentions risk getting caught up in spiraling worst-case assumptions and decisionmaking. The dangers of miscalculation, particularly in crisis situations, also grow with secrecy. Therefore, promoting and universalizing transparency, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, should be a top priority.


When initially asked to deliver this speech in Berlin I wanted to draw a useful analogy between conventional arms control and this city’s history, particularly the experience of the Berlin Wall. Certainly, countries build up their militaries and acquire weapons to keep others out, which is very much the purpose of building walls. But the Berlin Wall was built to keep people in. So I shied away from this analogy for a while.

Yet, I thought about it a little more and construction of the Berlin Wall was also very much about the East German government seeking to address its insecurity by isolating itself, keeping out ideas, and wrapping itself in secrecy instead of pursuing cooperation and openness. And it failed.

So, in the end, I think it is very appropriate to be holding this conference in Berlin because conventional arms control is all about overcoming walls and preventing new ones from being built. Thank you.