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Arms control

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Arms control is a term for international restrictions upon the development, production, stockpiling, proliferation and usage of small arms, conventional weapons, and weapons of mass destruction.[1] Historically, arms control may apply to melee weapons (such as swords) before the invention of firearm. Arms control is typically exercised through the use of diplomacy which seeks to impose such limitations upon consenting participants through international treaties and agreements, although it may also comprise efforts by a nation or group of nations to enforce limitations upon a non-consenting country.[2]


Arms control treaties and agreements are often seen as a way to avoid costly arms races which could prove counter-productive to national aims and future peace.[3] Some are used as ways to stop the spread of certain military technologies (such as nuclear weaponry or missile technology) in return for assurances to potential developers that they will not be victims of those technologies. Additionally, some arms control agreements are entered to limit the damage done by warfare, especially to civilians and the environment, which is seen as bad for all participants regardless of who wins a war.

While arms control treaties are seen by many peace proponents as a key tool against war, by the participants, they are often seen simply as ways to limit the high costs of the development and building of weapons, and even reduce the costs associated with war itself. Arms control can even be a way of maintaining the viability of military action by limiting those weapons that would make war so costly and destructive as to make it no longer a viable tool for national policy.


Enforcement of arms control agreements has proven difficult over time. Most agreements rely on the continued desire of the participants to abide by the terms to remain effective. Usually, when a nation no longer desires to abide by the terms, they usually will seek to either covertly circumvent the terms or to end their participation in the treaty. This was seen with the Washington Naval Treaty[4] (and the subsequent London Naval Treaty[5]), where most participants sought to work around the limitations, some more legitimately than others.[6] The United States developed better technology to get better performance from their ships while still working within the weight limits, the United Kingdom exploited a loop-hole in the terms, the Italians misrepresented the weight of their vessels, and when up against the limits, Japan left the treaty. The nations which violated the terms of the treaty did not suffer great consequences for their actions. Within little more than a decade, the treaty was abandoned. The Geneva Protocol[7] has lasted longer and been more successful at being respected, but still nations have violated it at will when they have felt the need. Enforcement has been haphazard, with measures more a matter of politics than adherence to the terms. This meant sanctions and other measures tended to be advocated against violators primarily by their natural political enemies, while violations have been ignored or given only token measures by their political allies.[8]

More recent arms control treaties have included more stringent terms on enforcement of violations as well as verification. This last has been a major obstacle to effective enforcement, as violators often attempt to covertly circumvent the terms of the agreements. Verification is the process of determining whether or not a nation is complying with the terms of an agreement, and involves a combination of release of such information by participants[9] as well as some way to allow participants to examine each other to verify that information.[10] This often involves as much negotiation as the limits themselves, and in some cases questions of verification have led to the breakdown of treaty negotiations (for example, verification was cited as a major concern by opponents of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, ultimately not ratified by the United States).[11][12]

States may remain in a treaty while seeking to break the limits of that treaty as opposed to withdrawing from it. This is for two major reasons. To openly defy an agreement, even if one withdraws from it, often is seen in a bad light politically and can carry diplomatic repercussions. Additionally, if one remains in an agreement, competitors who are also participatory may be held to the limitations of the terms, while withdrawal releases your opponents to make the same developments you are making, limiting the advantage of that development.

Theory of arms control[edit]

Scholars and practitioners such as John Steinbruner, Jonathan Dean or Stuart Croft worked extensively on the theoretical backing of arms control. Arms control is meant to break the security dilemma. It aims at mutual security between partners and overall stability (be it in a crisis situation, a grand strategy, or stability to put an end to an arms race). Other than stability, arms control comes with cost reduction and damage limitation. It is different from disarmament since the maintenance of stability might allow for mutually controlled armament and does not take a peace-without-weapons-stance. Nevertheless, arms control is a defensive strategy in principle, since transparency, equality, and stability do not fit into an offensive strategy.[citation needed]

According to a 2020 study in the American Political Science Review, arms control is rare because successful arms control agreements involve a difficult trade-off between transparency and security. For arms control agreements to be effective, there needs to be a way to thoroughly verify that a state is following the agreement, such as through intrusive inspections. However, states are often reluctant to submit to such inspections when they have reasons to fear that the inspectors will use the inspections to gather information about the capabilities of the state, which could be used in a future conflict.[13]


Pre-19th century[edit]

One of the first recorded attempts in arms control was a set of rules laid down in ancient Greece by the Amphictyonic Leagues. Rulings specified how war could be waged, and breaches of this could be punished by fines or by war.

In the 8th and 9th centuries AD, swords and chain mail armor manufactured in the Frankish empire were highly sought after for their quality, and Charlemagne (r. 768–814), made their sale or export to foreigners illegal, punishable by forfeiture of property or even death. This was an attempt to limit the possession and use of this equipment by the Franks' enemies, including the Moors, the Vikings and the Slavs.

The church used its position as a trans-national organization to limit the means of warfare. The 989 Peace of God (extended in 1033) ruling protected noncombatants, agrarian and economic facilities, and the property of the church from war. The 1027 Truce of God also tried to prevent violence between Christians. The Second Lateran Council in 1139 prohibited the use of crossbows against other Christians, although it did not prevent its use against non-Christians.

The development of firearms led to an increase in the devastation of war.[14] The brutality of wars during this period led to efforts to formalize the rules of war, with humane treatment for prisoners of war or wounded, as well as rules to protect non-combatants and the pillaging of their property. However, during the period until the beginning of the 19th century few formal arms control agreements were recorded, except theoretical proposals and those imposed on defeated armies.

One treaty which was concluded was the Strasbourg Agreement of 1675. This is the first international agreement limiting the use of chemical weapons, in this case, poison bullets. The treaty was signed between France and The Holy Roman Empire

19th century[edit]

The 1817 Rush–Bagot Treaty between the United States and the United Kingdom was the first arms control treaty of what can be considered the modern industrial era, leading to the demilitarization of the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain region of North America.[15] This was followed by the 1871 Treaty of Washington which led to total demilitarization.

The industrial revolution led to the increasing mechanization of warfare, as well as rapid advances in the development of firearms; the increased potential of devastation (which was later seen in the battlefields of World War I) led to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia calling together the leaders of 26 nations for the First Hague Conference in 1899. The Conference led to the signing of the Hague Convention of 1899 that led to rules of declaring and conducting warfare as well as the use of modern weaponry, and also led to the setting up of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

1900 to 1945[edit]

A Second Hague Conference was called in 1907 leading to additions and amendments to the original 1899 agreement.[16] A Third Hague Conference was called for 1915, but this was abandoned due to the First World War.

After the World War I, the League of Nations was set up which attempted to limit and reduce arms.[17] However the enforcement of this policy was not effective. Various naval conferences, such as the Washington Naval Conference, were held during the period between the First and Second World Wars to limit the number and size of major warships of the five great naval powers.

The 1925 Geneva Conference led to the banning of chemical weapons being deployed against enemy nationals in international armed conflict as part of the Geneva Protocol. The 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, whilst ineffective, attempted for "providing for the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy".[18]

Since 1945[edit]

Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev and U.S. President Reagan signing the INF Treaty in 1987

After World War II, the United Nations was set up as a body to promote and to maintain international peace and security.[19] The United States proposed the Baruch Plan in 1946 as a way to impose stringent international control over the nuclear fuel cycle and thereby avert a global nuclear arms race, but the Soviet Union rejected the proposal and negotiations failed. Following President Eisenhower's 1953 Atoms for Peace speech to the UN General Assembly, the International Atomic Energy Agency was set up in 1957 to promote peaceful uses of nuclear technology and apply safeguards against the diversion of nuclear material from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons.

Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which aimed to end nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, underwater and in outer-space, was established in 1963.[20] The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed to prevent further spread of nuclear weapons technology to countries outside the five that already possessed them: the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France and China.[21] With the three main goals of establishing nonproliferation with inspections, nuclear arms reduction, and the right to use nuclear energy peacefully, this treaty initially met some reluctance from countries developing their own nuclear programs such as Brazil, Argentina and South Africa.[22] Still, all countries with the exception of India, Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan decided to sign or ratify the document.[23][24]

The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the United States and Soviet Union in the late 1960s/early 1970s led to further weapons control agreements. The SALT I talks led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and an Interim Strategic Arms Limitation Agreement (see SALT I), both in 1972. The SALT II talks started in 1972 leading to agreement in 1979. Due to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan the United States never ratified the treaty, but the agreement was honoured by both sides.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed between the United States and Soviet Union in 1987 and ratified in 1988, leading to an agreement to destroy all missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers.[25] This came in the context of a revitalised peace movement during the previous decade which included huge demonstrations around the world for nuclear disarmament.[26]

The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention was signed banning the manufacture and use of chemical weapons.[27]

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties were signed, as START I and START II, by the US and Soviet Union, further restricting weapons.[28] This was further moved on by the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions, which was in turn superseded by the New START Treaty.

UN vote on adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons on 7 July 2017

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1996 banning all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military or civilian purposes, but it has not entered into force due to the non-ratification of eight specific states.[29][30]

In 1998 the United Nations founded the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA). Its goal is to promote nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and the strengthening of the disarmament regimes in respect to other weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological weapons. It also promotes disarmament efforts in the area of conventional weapons, especially landmines and small arms, which are often the weapons of choice in contemporary conflicts.[citation needed]

In addition to treaties focused primarily on stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, there has been a recent movement to regulate the sale and trading of conventional weapons. As of December 2014, the United Nations is preparing for entry into force of the Arms Trade Treaty, which has been ratified by 89 nations.[31] However, it is currently missing ratification by key arms producers such as Russia and China, and while the United States has signed the treaty it has not yet ratified it.[32] The Treaty regulates the international trade in almost all categories of conventional weapons – from small arms to battle tanks, combat aircraft and warships. Ammunition, as well as parts and components, are also covered.[33]

More recently, the United Nations announced the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2020, following the 50th ratification or accession by member states.[34]

List of treaties and conventions related to arms control[edit]

Some of the more important international arms control agreements follow:

Nuclear weapon-free zone treaties[edit]

Other treaties also envision the creation of NWFZ, among other objectives. These are the following:

Treaties not entered into force[edit]

Proposed treaties[edit]

Export control regimes[edit]

Nonbinding declarations[edit]

Arms control organizations[edit]

The intergovernmental organizations for arms control are the following:

There are also numerous non-governmental organizations that promote a global reduction in nuclear arms and offer research and analysis about U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Pre-eminent among these organizations is the Arms Control Association, founded in 1971 to promote public understanding of and support for arms control. Others include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Barry Kolodkin. "What Is Arms Control?". About.com, US Foreign Policy. The New York Times Company. Archived from the original (Article) on 3 September 2016. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  2. ^ Stuart Croft, Strategies of arms control: a history and typology (Manchester University Press, 1996).
  3. ^ Anup Shah (6 May 2012). "Arms Control" (Article). globalissues.org. Global Issues. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  4. ^ "CONFERENCE ON THE LIMITATION OF ARMAMENT, WASHINGTON, NOVEMBER 12 1921-FEBRUARY 6, 1922". ibiblio. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved 21 May 2012.
  6. ^ Peter Beisheim MA. "Naval Treaties: Born of the Second London Naval Treaty:A concise investigation of the qualitative limitations of capital ships 1936 – 1941". Bismarck & Tirpitz. John Asmussen. Archived from the original (Essay) on 22 January 2012. Retrieved 21 May 2012.
  7. ^ "Geneva Protocol". FAS: Weapons of Mass Destruction. Federation of American Scientists. Retrieved 21 May 2012.
  8. ^ Harald Müller (August 2005). "WMD: Law instead of lawless self help" (PDF). The Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission. Briefing paper 37. Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 June 2016.
  9. ^ "Chemical and Biological Weapons Status at a Glance" (Fact Sheet). Arms Control Association. June 2018.
  10. ^ A. Walter Dorn; Douglas S. Scott (2000). "Compliance mechanisms for disarmament treaties". Verification Yearbook 2000. London: Verification Research, Training and Information Centre. pp. 229–247 – via walterdorn.org.
  11. ^ Jonathan Medalia (3 August 2011). Comprehensive Nuclear Ban Treaty: Background and Current Developments (PDF). CRS Report for Congress (Report). Congressional Research Service. Retrieved 17 May 2012.
  12. ^ Rothman, Alexander H. (23 March 2011). "Fukushima: Another reason to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
  13. ^ Coe, Andrew J.; Vaynman, Jane (2020). "Why Arms Control Is So Rare". American Political Science Review. 114 (2): 342–355. doi:10.1017/S000305541900073X. ISSN 0003-0554. S2CID 201700936.
  14. ^ Coupland, R. M.; Meddings, D. R. (1999). "Mortality associated with use of weapons in armed conflicts, wartime atrocities, and civilian mass shootings". BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.). 319 (7207): 407–410. doi:10.1136/bmj.319.7207.407. PMC 28193. PMID 10445920.
  15. ^ "British-American Diplomacy Exchange of Notes Relative to Naval Forces on the American Lakes". The Avalon Project. Lillian Goldman Law Library. Retrieved 16 May 2012.
  16. ^ "Declaration (XIV) Prohibiting the Discharge of Projectiles and Explosives from Balloons. The Hague, 18 October 1907". Humainitarian Law. International Committee of the Red Cross. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  17. ^ "Arms Control and Disarmament – Between the world wars, 1919–1939". Encyclopedia of the New American Nation. Advameg, Inc. Retrieved 16 May 2012.
  18. ^ "Kellogg-Briand Pact 1928". The Avalon Project. Archived from the original on 9 May 2012. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  19. ^ "History of the UN". un.org. United Nations. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  20. ^ Magnarella, Paul J (2008). "Attempts to Reduce and Eliminate Nuclear Weapons through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Creation of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones.". PEACE & CHANGE. p. 514.
  21. ^ Council on Foreign Relations: Global Governance Monitor on Nonproliferation, available at http://www.cfr.org/publication/18985/
  22. ^ Magnarella, Paul J (2008). "Attempts to Reduce and Eliminate Nuclear Weapons through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Creation of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones.". PEACE & CHANGE. p. 509.
  23. ^ Gillis, Melissa (2017). "Disarmament: a Basic Guide, Fourth Edition.". New York: United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.
  24. ^ Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs.
  25. ^ Seiitsu Tachibana (1998). "Seiitsu Tachibana, "Much ado about something : The factors that induced Reagan and Gorbachev to conclude the INF Treaty"" (PDF). Hiroshima Peace Science, Vol.11. Nagasaki Institute of Applied Science. p. Hirospage.151–182. Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 March 2012. Retrieved 17 May 2012.
  26. ^ Kearns, Barbara (5 May 2021). "Stepping Out For Peace: A History of CANE and PND (WA)". The Commons Social Change Library. Retrieved 3 March 2023.
  27. ^ "Articles of the Chemical Weapons Convention". Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. OPCW. Retrieved 17 May 2012.
  28. ^ KIRIT RADIA (24 December 2010). "Nuclear Treaty: A Guide to Disarmament" (News article). ABC News. ABC News Internet Ventures. Yahoo! – ABC News Network. Retrieved 17 May 2012.
  29. ^ "Nuclear Testing Is an Acceptable Risk for Arms Control" (Article). Scientific American. 2 March 2009. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  30. ^ "What is the CTBT?". Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Organization (CTBTO). Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Organization (CTBTO). Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  31. ^ "Arms Trade Treaty". United Nations Treaty Collection. Retrieved 7 October 2016.
  32. ^ "The Arms Trade Treaty". UNODA. the United Nations. Retrieved 10 December 2014.
  33. ^ Gillis, Melissa (2017). "Disarmament: a Basic Guide, Fourth Edition.". New York: United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.
  34. ^ Gillis, Melissa (2017). "Disarmament: a Basic Guide, Fourth Edition.". New York: United Nations Office for Disarmament Affair.
  35. ^ The last naval conference treaty was to expire de jure in 1942, but in fact it ceased to be enforced with the start of World War II
  36. ^ "Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies". United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. UNOOSA. Retrieved 16 May 2012.
  38. ^ "Disarmament:The Biological Weapons Convention". UNOG. UNOG. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  39. ^ The Moon Treaty entered into force in 1984, but the great majority of states have neither signed nor ratified it, including the major spacefaring nations
  40. ^ Post–Cold War Amendments to the CFE Treaty were agreed in 1996, but never entered into force. Russia announced its intended suspension of the treaty in 2007.
  41. ^ Shakirov, Oleg (2019). "The future of the Vienna Document" (PDF). PIR Center. Archived (PDF) from the original on 26 January 2021. Retrieved 10 February 2022.
  42. ^ "Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II)". Federation of American Scientists. Federation of American Scientists. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  43. ^ Office of the Spokesperson (23 March 2012). "Open Skies Treaty: Fact Sheet". U.S. Department of State. U.S. State Department. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  44. ^ The largest producers of anti-personnel land mines, China, Russia and the United States, have not adhered to the Ottawa Treaty on land mines.
  45. ^ "The Convention". Convention on Cluster Munitions – CCM. Convention on Cluster Munitions – CCM. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  46. ^ "Cluster bomb treaty reaches ratification, UN says" (News article). BBC World News. BBC. 17 February 2010. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  47. ^ "Q&A: Cluster bomb treaty" (News article). BBC World News. BBC. 3 December 2008. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  48. ^ Stuart Hughes (1 August 2010). "Treaty enacted to ban cluster bombs". BBC World News. BBC. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  49. ^ Peter Wilk (19 November 2010). "Don't play politics with new START treaty". CNN. Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. Archived from the original on 12 March 2012. Retrieved 16 May 2012.
  50. ^ "New START: Treaty Text". US Department of State. U.S. State Department. Retrieved 16 May 2012.
  51. ^ "Key Senate committee passes nuclear arms treaty". CNN. Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 7 April 2010. Archived from the original on 25 March 2012. Retrieved 16 May 2012.
  52. ^ PETER BAKER (21 December 2010). "Arms Treaty With Russia Headed for Ratification" (Article). The New York Times. Retrieved 16 May 2012.
  53. ^ "Arms Trade Treaty". UNODA. UNODA. Retrieved 2 February 2015.
  54. ^ "South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) Treaty Treaty of Rarotonga". Federation of American Scientists. (Federation of American Scientists)www.fas.org. Retrieved 16 May 2012.
  55. ^ "Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Bangkok,Thailand 15 December 1995". ASEAN. ASEAN Secretariat. Retrieved 16 May 2012.
  56. ^ Scott Parrish, William C. Potter (8 September 2006). "Central Asian States Establish Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Despite U.S. Opposition" (Article). James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). Retrieved 16 May 2012.
  57. ^ "Draft Fissile Material (Cutoff) Treaty, or FM(C)T". Library: International Panel on Fissile Materials. International Panel on Fissile Materials. Retrieved 17 May 2012.
  58. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 June 2007. Retrieved 20 May 2007.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

Further reading[edit]

  • Adelman, Kenneth L. (1986). "Arms control and human rights". World Affairs. 149 (3): 157–162. JSTOR 20672104.
  • Amnesty International (2014). "Arms control and human rights". amnesty.org. Amnesty International.
  • Bailes, Alyson J. K. "The changing role of arms control in historical perspective." in Arms Control in the 21st Century (2013): 15-38.
  • Coe, Andrew J. and Jane Waynman. 2019. "Why Arms Control Is So Rare." American Political Science Review. doi:10.1017/S000305541900073X|
  • Croft, Stuart. Strategies of arms control: a history and typology (Manchester University Press, 1996).
  • Foradori, Paolo, et al. eds. Arms Control and Disarmament: 50 Years of Experience in Nuclear Education (2017) excerpt
  • Forsberg, Randall, ed., Arms Control Reporter 1995–2005. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995–2004.
  • Gillespie, Alexander. A History of the Laws of War: Volume 3: The Customs and Laws of War with Regards to Arms Control (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011).
  • Glynn, Patrick. Closing Pandora's Box: Arms Races, Arms Control, and the History of the Cold War (1992) online
  • Graham Jr, Thomas. Disarmament sketches: Three decades of arms control and international law (University of Washington Press, 2012).
  • Kaufman, Robert Gordon. Arms Control During the Pre-Nuclear Era (Columbia University Press, 1990).
  • Larsen, Jeffrey A. Historical dictionary of arms control and disarmament (2005) online
  • Mutschlerm, Max M. Arms Control in Space: Exploring Conditions for Preventive Arms Control (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
  • Reinhold, Thomas, and Christian Reuter. "Arms control and its applicability to cyberspace." in Information Technology for Peace and Security: IT Applications and Infrastructures in Conflicts, Crises, War, and Peace (2019): 207-231.
  • Smith, James M. and Gwendolyn Hall, eds. Milestones in strategic arms control, 1945–2000: United States Air Force roles and outcomes (2002) online
  • Thompson, Kenneth W., ed. Presidents and Arms Control: Process, Procedures, and Problems (University Press of America, 1997).
  • Williams Jr, Robert E., and Paul R. Viotti. Arms Control: History, Theory, and Policy (2 vol. ABC-CLIO, 2012).
  • Young, Nigel J. ed. The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace (4 vol. 2010) 1:89–122.

Primary sources[edit]

  • U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Arms Control and Disarmament Agreements: Texts and Histories of the Negotiations (1996) ISBN 9780160486890

External links[edit]