The Arms Control Delusion Lives On.

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  • 03/02/2023

Two months ago, the Council on Foreign Relations published a paper entitled “The Future of Strategic Arms Control” written by Rebecca Lissner, an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval War College. Earlier this month, former Ambassador to Germany and lead negotiator of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) Richard Burt and former NSC Arms Control Director Jon Wolfsthal wrote a much shorter piece in The National Interest urging President Biden to “go big” on nuclear arms control.

“Biden’s team believes that nuclear arms control is one of the keys to establishing peace between nuclear-armed states—more important than modernizing and upgrading America’s nuclear forces.”

Both articles urge U.S. policymakers to broaden arms control. Lissner recognizes that the United States is in a “new era of great power rivalry.” Burt and Wolfsthal describe this as a “tripolar nuclear world,” one in which “Washington must take a more expansive approach to negotiating with Moscow and Beijing.” Lissner promotes arms control as a way to “manage this new international landscape” and “regulate that rivalry when possible.” Burt and Wolfsthal contend that arms control is necessary to “address growing instabilities.” Lissner writes that the U.S. “should expand its conception of nuclear arms control to pursue a broader array of reciprocal restraints.” Burt and Wolfsthal call for “total weapons constraint,” including missile defenses.

Neither article views arms control—negotiated limits on nuclear warheads and delivery systems (missiles, bombers, submarines)—as a panacea, but rather, as a means to achieve strategic stability and to prevent nuclear Armageddon.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has staffed key national security positions with “true believers” in arms control and disarmament—many of whom had associations with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and the Arms Control Association, two think tanks that oppose U.S. missile defense, promote U.S. defense cuts, support the nuclear “deal” with Iran, promote “no-first use” of nuclear weapons by the United States, and criticized President Trump for allegedly moving the world closer to nuclear war.

It appears that Biden’s team believes that nuclear arms control is one of the keys to establishing peace between nuclear-armed states—more important than modernizing and upgrading America’s nuclear forces. The 20th century witnessed repeated failures of arms control, both before and after the invention of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, what the late Senator Malcolm Wallop and Angelo Codevilla called “the arms control delusion” lives on.

[caption id="attachment_189887" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Missile launch. Missile launch.[/caption]


The notion of arms control, of course, predates the nuclear era. In 1899, Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II and his foreign minister, Count Mikhail Nikolayevich Muravyov, proposed an international “peace conference” which was subsequently convened at The Hague. Russia proposed the conference based on the advice of Count Sergei Witte, Russia’s Finance Minister, who believed that an international arms race was driving the European great powers toward bankruptcy.

'Put an end to these incessant armaments,' — Tsar Nicholas II.

"The intellectual and physical strength of the nations, labor, and capital, are for the major part diverted from their natural application, and unproductively consumed," Tsar Nicholas wrote, calling for an agreement among the great powers of the time to "put an end to these incessant armaments and to seek the means of warding off the calamities which are threatening the whole world-such is the supreme duty which is today imposed on all States."

Twenty-six nations participated, including the United States. As William Hawkins explained in an article for the Naval War College Review, there had been a growing “peace movement” in the United States and Europe composed mostly of socialists, religious pacifists, lawyers, businessmen, and liberals. During the eight months leading up to the Hague Conference, Hawkins wrote, “all the major capitals were bombarded with petitions, deputations, and demonstrations by peace and disarmament advocates.” Newspapers in Europe and America were enthusiastic supporters of the disarmament conference.

The Hague Conference opened on May 18, 1899, on the Tsar's birthday, at the royal summer palace of the House of Orange. The statesmen of the great powers were skeptical, to say the least. The American delegation was led by Andrew White, then U.S. Ambassador to Germany and the former ambassador to Russia. White voiced his skepticism of arms control efforts:

“As regards the articles relating to the non-employment of new firearms, explosives and other destructive agencies, the restricted use of the existing instruments of destruction, and the prohibition of certain contrivances employed in naval warfare, it seems … that they are lacking in practicality and that the discussion of these articles would provoke divergency rather than unanimity of view. ... The expediency of restraining the inventive genius of our people in the direction of devising means of defense is by no means clear, and considering the temptations to which men and nations may be exposed in time of conflict, it is doubtful if an international agreement of this nature would prove effective.”

One of the five American delegates to the conference was Alfred Thayer Mahan, the famous author of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890) and other books and articles on sea power and international relations. Mahan, as Hawkins noted, “had no delusions about arms control.” Mahan had previously written that it was “force—force potential and force organized—which so far has won, and still secures, the greatest triumphs of good in the checkered history of mankind.” Ambassador White later commented that Mahan’s views at the conference “effectively prevented any lapse into sentimentality.” According to Hawkins, Mahan demonstrated “a profound skepticism towards arms control diplomacy” at the conference. Mahan later expanded on that skepticism in Armaments and Arbitration, a book that appeared three years before the outbreak of the First World War.

The 1899 Hague Conference adopted three arms control measures: a five-year ban on dropping bombs from airships, restrictions on the use of poison gas, and a ban on the use of a particular bullet. A Second Hague Conference was called for in 1904 at the suggestion of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, though it was briefly postponed because of the Russo-Japanese War. According to Eyre Crowe of the British Foreign Office, the 1907 Hague Conference sought to impose naval limitations on Britain and Germany. Instead, it stimulated German naval build-up by convincing Germany’s leaders that Britain was exhausted by the arms race.

The impetus for arms control greatly increased following the First World War. Winston Churchill memorably described the manner in which the great civilized states conducted that war in his memoir, The World Crisis (six volumes, published between 1923 and 1931). In vivid detail, Churchill unerringly captured the horror and devastation of modern warfare in the second decade of the 20th century:

 “All the horrors of all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them. The mighty educated States involved conceived-not without reason-that their very existence was at stake. Neither peoples nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them win. Germany, having let Hell loose, kept well in the van of terror; but she was followed step by step by the desperate and ultimately avenging nations she had assailed. Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals-often of a greater scale and of longer duration. No truce or parlay mitigated the strife of the armies. The wounded died between the lines: the dead mouldered into the soil. Merchant ships and neutral ships and hospital ships were sunk on the seas and all on board left to their fate, or killed as they swam. Every effort was made to starve whole nations into submission without regard to age or sex. Cities and monuments were smashed by artillery. Bombs from the air were cast down indiscriminately. Poison gas in many forms stifled or seared the soldiers. Liquid fire was projected upon their bodies. Men fell from the air in flames, or were smothered often slowly in the dark recesses of the sea. The fighting strength of armies was limited only by the manhood of their countries. Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and they were of doubtful utility.”

After that horrible conflict, statesmen and others concluded that, in the words of Edward Grey (who was Britain’s foreign secretary when the war began), “great armaments led inevitably to war. … The enormous growth of armaments in Europe, the sense of insecurity caused by them—it was these that made war inevitable.” Such sentiments, as Patrick Glynn explained in his 1992 book Closing Pandora’s Box, led to the disarmament movement of the interwar decades, which, as one of America’s most influential journalists Walter Lippmann wrote, succeeded in disarming the nations that wished to disarm. The Versailles Treaty, the Washington Naval Treaty, the Locarno Pact, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact sought to promote disarmament, and even to outlaw war.

It was all an illusion, however, as the events in Europe and Asia of the 1930s and 1940s so tragically confirmed.

[caption id="attachment_189885" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Nuclear warhead. Nuclear warhead.[/caption]


The notion that arms races produced wars, and that arms control would prevent those wars, outlived the Second World War and gained new impetus in the nuclear age. Glynn attributes this to what he called the “Sarajevo Fallacy”—the idea that World War I was caused by an arms race instead of the geopolitical ambitions of Imperial Germany. Although debunked by German historian Fritz Fischer in Germany’s Aims in the First World War (1961), the notion that the First World War was caused by the arms race was reinforced in Barbara Tuchman’s 1963 book The Guns of August, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.

The growth of strategic arsenals is a consequence of geopolitical rivalry, not its cause.

After the Second World War, prominent voices in the West urged international control of atomic weapons. After the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949, for instance, a debate raged in the United States about whether to develop a hydrogen bomb. Most of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) members and scientists, including chairman David Lilienthal and J. Robert Oppenheimer, opposed U.S, development of the hydrogen bomb.

Still, there was a nuclear arms race during much of the Cold War. And throughout the Cold War, the anti-nuclear “peace” movement grew in size and intensity. The political pressures to secure arms control agreements in the West were great; there were no such political pressures in the Soviet Empire. As Wallop and Codevilla noted in The Arms Control Delusion, in the Soviet Union, arms control was handled “by the same organization that is in charge of… strategic and tactical concealment and deception.”

Meanwhile, the Kennedy Administration lauded the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The Nixon administration lauded the signings of SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty) and the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty. During that same time period, from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, America lost its nuclear superiority, and the Soviets began developing a “first-strike” capability against U.S. land-based missiles and bomber bases. At the end of the 1970s, a Democrat-controlled Senate refused to confirm the flawed SALT II Treaty negotiated by President Carter. (The treaty would have locked in place significant Soviet advantages in land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and was not verifiable).

Edward Luttwak writing in Commentary in 1978, explained that arms control advocates during the Cold War “misused arms control in the attempt to dampen the strategic competition in itself, as if the growth of strategic arsenals were the cause of the Soviet-American rivalry rather than merely one of its symptoms...” Luttwak had it exactly right: the growth of strategic arsenals is a consequence of geopolitical rivalry, not its cause.

The failure of arms control in the 1970s was one reason for Ronald Reagan’s victory in the 1980 election. Reagan promised “peace through strength” and built up America’s nuclear and conventional armed forces. The anti-nuclear peace movement went crazy, and Western arms control proponents warned that Reagan’s arms build-up would lead to global nuclear war. Instead, Reagan’s arms build-up contributed to the West’s Cold War victory. By the time Soviet leaders agreed to real arms control, their days were numbered. Arms control didn’t contribute to the end of the Cold War; instead, real arms control was a consequence of the waning Cold War.

[caption id="attachment_189886" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Chinese military parade. Chinese military parade.[/caption]


The past failures of arms control, however, do not affect arms control enthusiasts. For the arms control community, pure intentions matter more than results. They believe they are on the side of the angels in working to rid the world of nuclear weapons. For them, abstraction trumps experience. And today’s arms control advocates will surely point to the new, well-publicized novel 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, written by a retired U.S. admiral and a former special forces officer, that envisions a future U.S. war with China in which San Diego and Galveston are destroyed by Chinese nukes and three Chinese cities, including Shanghai, are destroyed by American nukes.

We are in the midst of a new Cold War with Communist China...

A few years ago, Angelo Codevilla explained fundamentally why arms control agreements are superfluous or futile. “Wars,” he wrote, “stem from conflicting objectives. Treaties do not change them, though sometimes they reflect changes in them. Arms, such as a government may promise to control in a treaty, are means at the service of objectives. If another government’s objectives are objectionable, its promise to control one of the means to achieving them is cold comfort.”

We are in the midst of a new Cold War with Communist China, and, to make matters worse, Sino-Russian cooperation has increased during the last decade. The United States and China and Russia have conflicting geopolitical objectives. Neither China nor Russia is interested in international stability.

Arms, including nuclear arms, are means at the service of their geopolitical objectives. No nuclear weapons treaty or agreement will change these international realities. The nuclear genie cannot be put back in the bottle. We are forever destined to live under what the great Albert Wohlstetter called a “delicate balance of terror.” The Biden administration’s push for more arms control agreements will stall the modernization of U.S. nuclear forces based on the seemingly never-ending hope that limitations of arms will result in peace. That dream, that delusion, it seems, will never die.

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