Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

M. Shane Smith

July 2003

Arms control is often defined very broadly to refer to all forms of cooperation between potential adversaries geared toward reducing the likeliness of war, the economic costs of preparing for war and limiting the scope of violence should war occur. However, arms control is also used more narrowly to refer to specific steps aimed at managing an escalating arms competition between two actors.

For instance, during the Cold War, arms control efforts were undertaken by the United States and Soviet Union as a means to stabilize the nuclear arms race in a manner that alleviated fear of a surprise attack by one side. The result was a policy of mutually assured destruction, where both sides maintained second-strike nuclear forces able to retaliate and cause unacceptable destruction in the event that one side initiated an attack, reducing the likelihood that either would launch an offensive. This helped reduce tensions between the two superpowers by lessening the possibility that one could gain a decisive military advantage over the other, setting the stage for greater cooperation.[1]

While the break-up of the Soviet Union presented the United States with an ostensible Cold War victory, it also posed dire challenges to international security. In July 1991, Moscow and Washington had signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), committing both parties to dramatically reduce the numbers of atomic weapons in each of their arsenals. Five months later, the Soviet Union dissolved. At that time, some 50,000 atomic warheads remained at hundreds of sites throughout Eurasia and North America and approximately 3,000 strategic nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union were left outside of Russia. In addition to these weapons, nuclear materials and facilities remained intact in the former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Not only did this threaten to significantly increase the number of countries capable of wielding nuclear forces, but these newly-independent governments were also largely unstable and maintained ill-defined command and control arrangements. This actually heightened the risk of intended or unintended use of these weapons even as the Cold War had come to an end.

After intensive diplomatic bargaining, on May 23, 1992, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine signed the Lisbon Protocol -- an extension of START -- that obligated the new nuclear-capable states to disarm, remove all of their nuclear weapons to Russia, and adhere to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as non-nuclear weapon states. In exchange, security assurances, compensation for fissile materials, and financial assistance were provided to the disarming states. Meanwhile, Russia and the United States committed to fulfill the reductions required by the Treaty. This arms control arrangement set the stage for further cooperative behavior toward securing nuclear facilities in the former Soviet territories, limited the potential for greater proliferation of nuclear weapons, and lessened the risk of nuclear use.

The Security Dilemma

In an international environment, where states are able to develop and maintain armed forces, a "security dilemma" exists. This dilemma occurs when a state's preparation to defend itself is perceived by another state as threatening, causing the threatened state to take comparable defensive action.[2] This often leads to an increase in arms on both sides. Because international trust is generally lacking, states tend to interpret incoming information of a rival's military developments in the worst light and will respond in similar fashion. Many times this results in an upward spiral or arms race, such as the U.S.-Soviet nuclear competition during the Cold War that led to ridiculously large stockpiles of atomic weapons. More importantly, when states attempt to gain security through military superiority, it often leads to an increase in political tensions between adversaries and raises the prospect and deadliness of war. Arms control tries to address this potential outcome through agreements among rivals on either the character or quantity of weapons developments.

Arms control can be conceived of as a means toward achieving a larger goal or as an end unto itself. The United States and Soviet Union used arms control to manage a state-to-state competition and in turn reduced the potential for tensions to escalate to a crisis situation and even war. That is, arms control had a larger goal of stabilization rather than to simply get lower numbers of weapons. In fact, "arms control [can actually] lead states to agree to increases in certain categories of armaments if such increases would contribute to crisis stability and thereby reduce the chance of war."[3] In this way, arms control is a tool for conflict management. However, proponents of disarmament oftentimes see the goal of arms control simply as a reduction in the destructive capability of military forces.

Gregory Rattray distinguishes between disarmament and arms control by whether the ultimate aim is to improve the security for the involved parties or to achieve lower numbers of weapons. For instance, the elimination of all nuclear weapons has long been a stated goal of many world leaders, including the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War. Yet the fact that we cannot eradicate nuclear technologies, combined with the suspicious nature of rival states (i.e. the "security dilemma" described above), poses significant questions about and barriers to achieving such a goal. Thus, during the Cold War, the two superpowers took small steps to improve stability and national security through arms control, rather than disarmament for disarmament's sake, which could have had destabilizing consequences. In short, traditional arms control does not assume "that the level of forces and weapons most favorable to international security is the lowest one."[4]

In recent years, however, the divisions between traditional arms control and other efforts toward limiting weapons developments have become increasingly blurred. For example, nonproliferation policies have emerged as a means toward preventing the spread of new and destructive technologies, particularly weapons of mass destruction (generally encompassing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons) and missile technologies. While traditional arms control is often aimed at stabilizing or managing competitive relationships, nonproliferation can come in the form of unilateral, bilateral and multilateral arrangements that seek to reduce the incentives and raise the costs of certain actors to acquire targeted weapons technologies.[5] Oftentimes, these arrangements attempt to simply establish a norm within the international community of unacceptable behavior, such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Arms Control versus Nonproliferation

After years of negotiation and intermittent efforts to control the spread of atomic weapons, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into force in 1970 and in 1995 its statutes were extended indefinitely. The international agreement required its signatories who had not tested a nuclear weapon by July 1967 to forego the development of any atomic weaponry. In exchange, they would receive peaceful nuclear technologies from the atomic weapons states and a pledge from those powers to seek an early end to their ongoing arms race. This arrangement was backed up with the creation of an international inspection agency to monitor and verify nuclear developments in non-nuclear states. Meanwhile, the atomic weapons states continued discussions toward restricting nuclear weapons tests with a view to capping the destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons at the levels of existing arsenals.

There are now 189 members to the Treaty (2013); only Cuba, India, Pakistan, and Israel remain non-members. While nuclear developments in the latter three countries pose serious challenges to the Treaty, the NPT is often viewed as the most successful international agreement of its kind, with only eight de facto nuclear weapons states as opposed to the dozens predicted 40 years ago.[6] Though North Korea recently became the first country to withdraw from the Treaty, and despite suspicions of nuclear developments elsewhere, the NPT signifies an international desire to limit nuclear weapons acquisition, with complete disarmament as its end goal.

In addition to limiting the spread of nuclear weaponry, the NPT encourages more peaceful relations among potential adversaries. Members have tacitly agreed to limitations on the conduct of war and, in turn, are perceived as having less bellicose intentions than those that do not abide by such norms. Moreover, the Treaty provides an instrument for placing international pressure on would-be proliferators and establishes a foundation from which further communication and cooperation can emerge.

Converging Agendas?

To be sure, there is a great deal of overlap between the objectives and methods of traditional arms control and of other means toward limiting weapons developments. The near-universal NPT arrangement provides the perfect example of how arms control and nonproliferation have converged. It also highlights two types of broadly defined arms control efforts -- vertical and horizontal arms control.

Article VI of the NPT requires the nuclear weapons states to work toward reduction of their arsenals in exchange for promises from non-nuclear weapons states to not seek atomic weaponry. To demonstrate their commitment to reductions, the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has been offered as an essential step in capping the qualitative or vertical development of nuclear weapons at the level of current arsenals. In essence, it is an agreement to no longer test nuclear weapons.[7] Without such tests, it is presumed that no country could confidently incorporate new and untested nuclear technologies into its military planning. Thus, such an agreement by the nuclear weapon states to halt vertical proliferation would presumably reinforce the commitment of non-nuclear states to forgo atomic weaponry. It would, therefore, limit the emergence of new nuclear-armed states or, in other words, prevent the horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons.

International agreements and unilateral efforts aimed at limiting the sales of weapons or potentially dangerous technologies have also become important tools for reducing the risks of violent conflict. Yet such efforts have posed challenges to relations between the more and less developed nations. The right to defend oneself is held by most states as the fundamental concept behind national sovereignty and is enshrined in the United Nations charter. However, the rising destructive capability of modern technologies has compelled many to call for unilateral and multilateral restrictions on the types of technologies that should be available on the marketplace, particularly internationally.

For instance, the Missile Technology Control Regime was created as a multinational effort to restrict the spread of missiles and missile technologies. It has over 25 member states that voluntarily work to develop exporting guidelines or export controls that restrict technologies capable of aiding missile developments. In 2000, this included a short-lived Japanese ban on exporting Sony's newly mass-marketed gaming console because its technology was deemed useful in guiding missiles.[8] So, not only are less-developed nations subject to restrictions on the weapons they are able to acquire, but oftentimes those restrictions also apply to non-military technologies that can actually aid in developing modern economies, such as computer systems which have both military and civil applications. Therefore, those nations targeted by such efforts frequently dismiss export controls as a tool of the more developed nations toward preserving their dominance over the less developed.

Export controls are not limited to multilateral arrangements. Rather, every state has at one time or another attempted to unilaterally regulate the sale of particular technologies to potential adversaries. Washington, for instance, attempts to limit high-performance computer technologies that are widely available on the open market in order to stem the capability of countries such as China and North Korea from acquiring computers able to aid in the development of highly advanced weapons systems. Indeed, the United States maintains an elaborate export control system that targets technologies and countries and even requires follow-up inspections that verify the recipients do not use the targeted technologies in an unintended manner. The technologies usually targeted are those associated with the ability to develop weapons of mass destruction. However, as technological advancements continue, the division between peaceful technologies and those that aid weapons development is increasingly blurred. Additionally, more and more countries are able to develop these technologies, further complicating any efforts toward their regulation.

Incentives and Sanctions

While many arms control efforts are focused on the more advanced and potentially destructive technologies, most of the tens of millions of casualties from post-World War II conflicts have not resulted from sophisticated weaponry such as weapons of mass destruction or other advanced technologies, but from more conventional weapons that are found in all corners of the globe. This has generated an increased awareness of the potentially harmful effects of unchecked sales of conventional weapons and has led many to call for both unilateral and multilateral efforts to curb such trade. These have resulted in confidence building and transparency measures, embargoes, codes of conduct, and bans on cruel and inhumane weapons.

In an effort to lessen distrust in the international community, actions have been taken to develop greater transparency through such practices as the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms. The registry includes data on international arms transfers as well as information voluntarily provided by member states on military holdings, procurement through national production and relevant policies. While this is not arms "control" per se, it is hoped that increasing openness and knowledge will build trust and restraint among would-be adversaries. Such voluntary contributions, however, have experienced limited success because international actors -- particularly those in conflict -- are oftentimes reluctant to provide fully accurate information on their military capabilities. However, the fact that countries have recognized the need to at least track if not provide disclosure of arms transfers certainly enhances the prospect for greater sensitivity to potentially negative consequences rising from small arms developments.

Often, states attempt to cut off military transfers -- from hardware to advice -- in order to signal disapproval of behavior by a certain actor, to maintain neutral standing in an ongoing conflict or in the hopes of limiting the resources an actor has to inflict violence on others. These embargoes have become a more commonly used tool since the end of the Cold War and the subsequent emergence of human rights catastrophes that accompanied a resurgence of ethnic conflicts, as an attempt to control the arms of despots in order to limit their capacity for violence. For instance, international arms embargoes have been imposed on Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Liberia, Libya, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia in the last dozen years. However, such practices are not new. Until its direct involvement in World War II, the United States often placed automatic and unilateral military embargoes on any country involved in a conflict, regardless of who initiated hostilities. The hope was to keep the United States out of any overseas wars. However, some argue that placing embargoes on belligerents makes taking sides unavoidable, because it locks in the positions of those who are better armed at the beginning of a conflict.

Rather than waiting for hostilities to break out, many suggest that a standing code of conduct be developed to regulate the sales of small arms to repressive or irresponsible actors. Nancy Colton, of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, argues that "an estimated 500 million such weapons are manufactured in many countries and eventually sold to drug dealers, terrorists, and other violent groups causing economic and social collapse in many regions, especially Africa, Asia, and Latin America, closing schools, businesses, and destroying infrastructure."[9] In response, efforts toward facilitating agreements among countries and arms manufacturers to regulate this flow of weapons have been supported by nongovernmental organizations, as well as national and international actors, including, to various degrees, the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations.

Lastly, arms control efforts have expanded to include the ban of weapons that are deemed cruel or inhumane. For instance, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention and the Anti-Personnel Landmine Ban are international agreements that outlaw the development, sale, and use of such weapons. These arrangements demonstrate an international willingness to establish norms for war conduct through proscribing the use of weapons considered to be too indiscriminate or unnecessarily injurious. However, the ease of manufacturing and difficulty of regulating these less-advanced weapons, as well as the lack of international willingness to enforce such arrangements, pose serious obstacles to the success of these bans -- as became clear with the revelation of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons programs in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. Nonetheless, these efforts represent clear attempts by the international community to stigmatize particular weapons with calls for meaningful verification and enforcement of the agreements, rather than the disbanding of such arrangements in the face of significant challenge.

Why is Arms Control Important?

The official U.S. National Security Strategy has in the past characterized the potential benefits of arms control efforts as:

  • Helping to reduce incentives to initiate attack;
  • Enhancing predictability regarding size and structure of forces, thus reducing fear of aggressive intent;
  • Reducing the size of national defense industry establishments and thus permit the growth of more vital, nonmilitary industries;
  • Ensuring confidence in compliance through effective monitoring and verification;
  • Ultimately contributing to a more stable and calculable balance of power.[10]

In other words, efforts toward governing arms developments can reduce distrust and build confidence among potential adversaries that helps avert crises and can lead to greater cooperation. This, of course, does not only apply to state-to-state relations. These same tools can be applied toward managing inter-communal, ethnic, or even regional relations as well.


[1] See Thomas C. Schelling and Morton H. Halperin, Strategy and Arms Control (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1961), 10-14.

[2] Robert Jervis, "Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma," World Politics, Vol. 30, No. 2 (January 1978). 

[3] Gregory J. Rattray, "Introduction," in Jeffrey A. Larsen and Gregory J. Rattray, Arms Control: Toward the 21st Century (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, Inc., 1996), p. 8. Emphasis added.

[4] Headly Bull, The Control of the Arms Race (New York: Praeger Press, 1961), p. 37.

[5] Zachary S. Davis, "The Convergence of Arms Control and Nonproliferation: Vive La Difference," The Nonproliferation Review (Spring-Summer 1999), p. 99.

3 The text of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty can be found at the following United Nations web-site: The five nuclear weapons states recognized by the Treaty are China, France, Great Britain, Soviet Union (Russia), and the United States.

[6] In addition to the nuclear weapons states recognized by the Treaty, India first tested a nuclear weapon in 1974, then again in 1998. Pakistan tested a nuclear device in 1998 as well and, while Israel has never tested a nuclear weapon, it is widely perceived as maintaining a limited atomic arsenal. For information on nuclear tests, see the Arms Control Association's web-site at

[7] While the Treaty was open for signature in 1996 and most nations -- barring India and Pakistan -- have signed onto the agreement, the Treaty requires that there are 44 nuclear-capable countries that must ratify in accordance with their constitutions before the Treaty comes into force. Around 11 such countries have yet to do so, including the United States.

[8] "Sony Game Sparks Fears: So Powerful It Could be Used to Guide Missiles," The Gazette (Montreal), April 17, 2000, p. B-4.

[9] Nancy E.W. Colton, "The United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects," July 9-20, 2001.

[10] William J. Clinton, A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement (Washington, D.C.: GPO, February 1995), pp. 7-24; quoted in Peter L. Hayes, Brenda J. Vallance and Alan R. an Tassel (eds.), American Defense Policy, seventh edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 290-291.

Use the following to cite this article:
Smith, M. Shane. "Arms Control and Non-Proliferation." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <>.

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