Arms Control Essay

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Arms control is a means of addressing a major and enduring global social problem: arms proliferation. This entails the production and spread of weapons, ranging from small arms and light weapons, through missiles and military aircraft, up to weapons of mass destruction. Arms control involves a variety of efforts to restrict or ban the development, stockpiling, proliferation, and use of these weapons. While much of the literature on arms control focuses on formal negotiations and treaties, this should neither refute the importance of claims making by peace and disarmament organizations nor obscure the importance of informal controls and, at the extreme, the use of force to prevent proliferation.

States arm themselves because of what is called the “security dilemma.” States exist in an anarchical international system where there is no central authority capable of providing them with security. Hence they must try to protect themselves against external foes as well as the threat of civil violence (by guerrillas, warlords, etc.). Security measures can take many forms, but typically they involve maintaining armed forces and forging alliances. Other states may see arms and alliances as a threat, and they in turn normally seek their own arms and alliances to protect themselves. The upshot is to augment general mistrust and insecurity and to foster arms races.

Arms are easily available, as about 100 countries manufacture small arms. Virtually every industrialized country manufactures an array of weapons to supply its own military; most of these countries also sell arms internationally, with the United States in particular, followed by European nations, Russia, and China, as the major world suppliers of armaments. The global arms trade—legal and illegal—is, by some estimates, approaching a trillion dollars annually, and arms industries are clearly of major economic and often strategic importance to supplying countries.

Here we see a further manifestation of the security dilemma. While selling arms potentially serves the national interest of seller states—beyond profit, there is the hope of strengthening allies—this is not the case when opposing states buy arms or contribute to regional or national instability. Hence arms-supplying nations often try to curb the sales of specific weapons to particular countries by a mixture of collaboration and the exertion of pressure. Such informal arms controls work reasonably well with advanced computers and sensitive electronic components but have minimal impact on small arms and light weapons. Selective sales, which can be considered a primitive form of arms control, sometimes backfire. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the United States supplied the latter with anti-aircraft missiles and other sophisticated weapons that subsequently became part of the arsenal of groups that the United States came to regard as enemies.

At the other extreme is the use of force to impose arms controls. Perhaps the outstanding example is the 1981 Israeli bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. Saddam Hussein started a clandestine nuclear program in the 1970s and likely would have acquired nuclear weapons if the reactor had not been destroyed. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was supposedly motivated by the fear that Saddam had developed weapons of mass destruction after having expelled UN weapons inspectors in 1998. The inspections, however, proved to have been effective. The possibility that Iran might be developing nuclear weapons has generated pressure from the United Nations as well as implied threats of military action by the United States and Israel.

Beyond selective sales and force, arms control has been effectuated mostly through multilateral treaties. Arms control agreements are meant to check the security dilemma by providing transparency, (relative) equality, stability, and trust among participating states. While the ultimate aim is to prevent war, arms control can arrest the development or spread of particular weapons, limit the damage done in conflicts, obviate arms races, and reduce military spending. Although there are many problems in getting nations to ratify treaties and to adhere to them, arms control has proven to be effective in at least some instances.

Looking at past successes, the Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of poisonous gases was signed on June 17, 1925. Although it took many years for the protocol to be ratified by most nations, the prohibition has generally held, and it has been updated by Biological (in 1972) and Chemical (in 1993) Conventions. All of these examples involve weapons of mass destruction. Notably, most arms control treaties since the end of World War II deal with such weapons rather than conventional ones. This is significant and relates to the sociology of social problems.

Sociologists studying social problems commonly observe that responses to issues are often independent of their “objective seriousness.” Whereas 10 cases of mad cow disease in England became a global celebrity issue, close to 3 million annual deaths from tuberculosis attract almost no media attention. With arms control, most of the negotiations and the vast majority of media coverage focus on weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear arms. The latter draw on deeply embedded anxieties (the mushroom cloud, invisible radiation poisoning), as well as the risk of almost unimaginable numbers of deaths should such weapons ever be used. Yet small arms and light weapons—think of the Soviet/Russian AK-47 assault rifle—are responsible for the vast majority of combat deaths in recent wars and are central to civil violence.

Still, it has proved almost impossible to get any agreements to regulate such arms. Thus the United Nations Conference to review the implementation of the Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons ended on July 7, 2006, without agreement on an outcome document. The original UN Programme of Action, adopted in 2001, is still in operation, but it has inadequate controls. Indeed, the United States has vetoed UN attempts to limit international trade in small arms, citing the right of citizens to bear arms for self-defense.

A significant exception is the 1997 Ottawa Convention that bans anti-personnel land mines. The Mine Ban Treaty became binding under international law in just 2 years, doing so more quickly than any treaty of its kind. This success was due in good part to the extensive publicity the issue received, with claims-making by celebrities that included Princess Diana, as well as by a host of nongovernmental organizations from around the world. Most arms control agreements, in contrast, gain limited publicity and are engineered mostly in closed meetings among government bureaucrats. The United States, China, and Russia are among 40 countries that have not signed the Ottawa Convention. Another nonsignatory, Pakistan, has generated so much opposition to its plan to land mine its border with Afghanistan that it appears to have backed away from the idea.

The bulk of arms control agreements deal with nuclear weapons and related delivery systems. Since the United States and the Soviet Union conducted scores of atmospheric nuclear tests, public pressures led to the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, limiting testing to underground sites. Subsequent treaties aimed to prevent nuclear proliferation and have had mixed success in the context of several dilemmas. A key dilemma is how to prevent arms proliferation while allowing countries to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Although this was the goal of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it created the further dilemma of enshrining a monopoly by the original nuclear weapons club—the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, China, and France. While most countries have joined the NPT, others, such as Israel, India, and Pakistan, have developed their own nuclear weapons. There is now concern about a “second nuclear age,” as North Korea and Iran pursue nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia maintain about 2,000 launch-ready strategic nuclear missiles, and unsecured nuclear materials in Russia feed fears of a terrorist bomb. Were Iran to develop the bomb, it is likely that neighboring countries would also go nuclear.

Because states are sovereign entities, the security dilemma plays out again in the difficulties in verifying and enforcing arms agreements. States can carry on unauthorized nuclear or other arms activities, and they can always abrogate treaties. In its efforts to develop a Star Wars defense against missiles, the United States is jeopardizing the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Outer Space Treaty. China’s apparently successful test of an anti-satellite missile in January 2007 points to the vulnerability of arms control agreements as the security dilemma drives efforts to develop newer and more sophisticated weapons. Arms control will never be completed but will remain a challenging endeavor requiring constant input and monitoring. Thus, as a result of an arms buildup by China and a possible North Korean atomic bomb, Japan is contemplating changing the pacifist constitution it adopted after World War II.


  1. Forsberg, Randall. 2005. Arms Control Reporter. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  2. Lumpe, Lora. 2000. Running Guns: The Global Black Market in Small Arms. London: Zed.
  3. Wittner, Lawrence. 2003. Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the Nuclear Disarmament Movement 1971 to the Present. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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