During the twentieth century arms control and disarmament issues, spurred by developments in weapons technology, emerged as fundamental political and policy considerations. Concerns with modern weaponry led to the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907, which updated the laws of war and sought to focus attention on the dangers of poison gas and aerial bombardment. The decades between the two world wars saw the unilateral disarmament of Germany in 1919, the controversial naval limitation treaties, and the inability of the League of Nations to deal with a rearming world. And, with the emergence of the nuclear era after World War II, debates over arms control and disarmament occupied much of the United Nations' attention and stimulated bilateral superpower negotiations.
The process of negotiating arms control and disarmament agreements became increasingly complex. As policymakers prepared for negotiations, they wrestled with the objectives they wished to achieve and the risks they were willing to accept. Utopian aspirations or broadly gauged disarmament proposals rarely figured prominently in arms control objectives even when peace groups aroused public sentiment in support of such negotiations—such as at the first Hague Conference and with the nuclear-freeze movement of the 1970s and 1980s.
While the bargaining was usually strenuous between teams of competing diplomats, it was often even more intense between competing bureaucracies at home. Indeed, chiefs of state frequently discovered that their latitude in negotiating specific issues had been sharply curtailed in the process of getting all major players at home to agree. In Washington, this was often referred to as the Battle of the Potomac, and a similar struggle usually took place in Moscow.
As weapon systems became more complicated, it was necessary to call upon experts for advice. At the unsuccessful Geneva Naval Conference of 1927, naval delegates completely bewildered the conferees with elaborate formulas comparing the relative merits of eight-inch versus six-inch guns and heavy versus light cruisers. The senior British diplomat returned home arguing that from then on, experts "should be on tap, but not on top." With the advent of the nuclear age, it was often the case that specialists could complicate issues to a point where they became technically, and hence politically, insoluble. During the early test ban negotiations, seismologists developed verification techniques that appeared to be acceptable to many scientists and diplomats; however, these experts kept refining the already low error rate so it would be even smaller. It took a long time to develop a comprehensive test ban because critics—who often had a vested interest in continuing underground testing—argued that one could not be absolutely certain that there was no cheating. From all of this, there is one obvious lesson. To be successful, the negotiation of an arms control and disarmament agreement cannot be an engineering or technical exercise; it must be essentially a political undertaking.
Initial risks involved in arms control and disarmament agreements are sometimes difficult to perceive. Treaties that are termed controversial (that is, they involve some obvious risk) inevitably stimulate contemporary observers to judge the agreements consistent with their personal beliefs and values. The optimistic, enthusiastic supporters of the agreement usually tend to minimize the risks, whereas the pessimistic, suspicious opponents generally overestimate the risks.
Not all contemporary critics have been military officers, as some opponents of the London Naval Limitation Treaty of 1930 illustrate. As Fredrick Hale stated before the U.S. Senate: "The British by the terms of this treaty have us hamstrung and hog-tied and there will keep us as long as limitations of armaments are the order of the day." Winston Churchill stated before the House of Commons: "I am astonished that any Admiralty board of naval officers could have been found to accept responsibility for such a hamstringing stipulation." T Inukai, speaking before the Japanese Diet, stated that the government had "betrayed the country by entering into an agreement at the London Conference inadequate for Japan's defense needs."
These were three civilian statesmen from the three principal signatory nations each insisting that his country's security had been impaired by the treaty. Each was, of course, assessing the risks incurred in the naval treaty based on his own personal convictions and assumptions about the nature of a nation's security.
During the Cold War it was obvious that most American policymakers disregarded the admonishment of Truman's Secretary of State, General George C. Marshall, that if you define a political problem in military terms, it will soon become a military problem. As the cold warriors emphasized the military dimension of national security and scorned arms control and disarmament policies, their mantra was the old Roman precept—if you desire peace (security), prepare for war. A little historical insight might have given them pause, for the more Romans prepared for war, the more war they waged, until, in the end, Rome was conquered.
Clearly, national security cannot be defined simply in amounts of weaponry. Few in Washington reflected on the fact that during the nineteenth century the United States felt quite secure with its policy of political isolationism and its meager armed forces while, conversely, never had the United States felt so insecure as it did during the Cold War years when it possessed a vast peacetime nuclear arsenal, substantial military forces, and allies around the world. A nation's security, then, may rest as much on a sense of national well-being—a psychological state—as it does on the size of its military forces. It would appear, as H. A. L. Fisher wrote during the interwar years, that "in reality, security is a state of mind; so is insecurity."
Whether or not an arms control agreement might be violated was a matter of special concern in the nuclear era. Consequently, the search for effective means of verifying or supervising the compliance with arms control and disarmament agreements has been far more intense since 1945 than in earlier years. The verification or supervision process employs several methods of monitoring compliance that may be classified as "national means" and "cooperative/intrusive means."
The traditional method used to verify treaty compliance has been national means, in which human observers—including military attachés assigned to foreign capitals; national intelligence agencies (for example, the CIA); international businessmen and tourists; and clandestine or undercover sources, including spies—have served as important sources of information. The naval limitation treaties of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as agreements dealing with the outlawing of weapons and demilitarization, used these methods. Prior to World War II, the reports of military attachés were considered to be particularly valuable because of the expertise of the observers; indeed, most of the treaty evasions reported were initially noted by the attachés. Equally important has been the analysis of foreign publications, especially commercial and industrial reports. In such documents, sharp-eyed readers could detect significant changes taking place in the allocation of resources and the establishment or conversion of factories. In this undramatic fashion, the allies learned in the mid-1920s of Germany's evasion of the Versailles Treaty clause forbidding a "general staff" by examining the telephone book of the German military headquarters, which listed the various offices and their functions.
With the advent of modern electronics, photography, space vehicles, and other devices, a new dimension called "national technical means" was added. Such devices have been employed to verify both the quantitative and the qualitative features of strategic weaponry, particularly the numbers and characteristics of ballistic missiles, information that was vital to negotiation of the SALT and START accords. The restrictions on nuclear testing have been monitored—quite effectively, according to private scientific groups—by specially devised seismic devices.
An obvious example of cooperative/intrusive supervision is on-site inspection employed to verify compliance. Such inspection has been used in the efforts to ensure that terms of, for example, the Treaty of Versailles, the Antarctic Treaty, the INF agreement, and the Iraqi armistice were carried out. They also have been used regularly by the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that matériel employed in the peaceful use of nuclear energy is not illegally shifted to the manufacture of nuclear weapons.
The Antarctic and INF treaties and the International Atomic Energy Agency inspections have been carried out in cooperation with various treaty members because of the perceived mutual advantages. With the Treaty of Versailles and the Iraqi armistice, on the contrary, inspection teams attempting to verify that all imposed terms were carried out were unwelcome in countries whose governments viewed the terms as unfair and the inspection teams as intrusive.
The historical record of compliance is somewhat mixed, but on the whole, agreements in which a sense of mutuality was established have been honored. Often, evasions or violations that occurred were unintended and marginal—with the possible exception of the Soviet violation of the biological weapons pact. There is no evidence of any unknown treaty violation having had a significant impact on the outcome of a military engagement. Few, if any, governments have negotiated and signed an arms control agreement while deliberately planning to evade the terms of the agreement.
Finally, people in general, even quite sophisticated individuals, usually expect too much from arms control agreements. These techniques are designed to accomplish essentially two basic purposes: to reduce the feasibility of electing war as a means of resolving disputes by reducing the armaments available; and, if that should fail, to diminish the military violence in any subsequent hostilities. These agreements, which usually have been rather specific and technical, focused on armaments or the employment of weapons. The arms control process requires a minimum level of political cooperation and, even then, progress can be slow where suspicions and hatreds must be mitigated. Often the first steps to break down the wall of suspicion are measures that provide for exchanging verified information concerning each side's military forces—confidence- and security-building measures. Rarely have arms control and disarmament accords sought to address the basic political, economic, social, and moral issues that are at the heart of the international disputes that have prompted nations to go to war.