The protracted Cold War arms control negotiations did result in a number of accords—for example, the nonproliferation treaty system, the strategic arms pacts, and the hot lines—that stabilized the military climate and provided an avenue for easing political tensions. Although these were significant accomplishments, the tendency in American political circles and in the public mind during the Cold War era was to emphasize—even dramatize—the military dimensions of national security while playing down the contributions of arms control agreements.
The headlines featured those individuals who frequently exaggerated the U.S. vulnerability to Soviet nuclear weaponry. "For more than four decades," Strobe Talbott concluded, "Western policy has been based on a grotesque exaggeration of what the USSR could do if it wanted, therefore what it might do, therefore what the West must be prepared to do in response…. Worst-case assumptions about Soviet intentions have fed, and fed upon, worst-case assumptions about Soviet capabilities." Some Cold War hawks defended their frightening scenarios as a patriotic duty. "Democracies will not sacrifice to protect their security in the absence of a sense of danger," Richard Perle, a Reagan Defense Department official, explained in a Newsweek article (18 February 1983), "and every time we create the impression that we and the Soviets are cooperating and moderating the competition, we diminish the sense of apprehension."
Despite public pronouncements that America's continually growing nuclear arsenal would provide diplomatic "bargaining chips" or allow "negotiating from strength," U.S. leaders who were so inclined found it extremely difficult to put forth mutually negotiable proposals that could diminish the unthinkable threat posed by nuclear weapons. The interminable bickering between government agencies—especially, the Defense Department, State Department, Arms Control Agency, and intelligence agencies—often stymied presidents and diplomats. Such squabbling prompted a senior member of the National Security Council staff to declare, "Even if the Soviets did not exist, we might not get a START treaty because of disagreements on our side." Another high-ranking U.S. official complained that if the Soviets "came to us and said, 'You write it, we'll sign it,' we still couldn't do it."
America's proclivity to seek security almost exclusively through an ever-expanding nuclear arsenal allowed Defense Department officials, along with the cold warriors in Congress, to dominate arms control policies. Their frequent shortsighted objections to halting or placing limits on emerging weapons systems—such as MIRVs, cruise missiles, and nuclear testing—when the United States held a temporary technological lead often prevented agreements that could have fore-stalled another surge in the arms race. Not surprisingly, the SALT treaties, while establishing limitations, actually provided for both sides to expand their strategic nuclear forces. It was only with the INF accord and the START agreements that actual reduction of nuclear-armed weapons systems occurred, and these came about largely as a result of Gorbachev's initiative as he was terminating the Cold War.
During the pre-Gorbachev decades, hardy cold warriors argued that the authoritarian nature of the Soviet Union would most likely lead it to secretly violate arms control agreements in order to gain political or military advantage. Not surprisingly, the Reagan administration spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy in a persistent search for Soviet arms control violations. Three White House reports implied an accelerated pattern of Soviet noncompliance—seven alleged violations in 1984, thirteen in 1985, and eighteen in 1986. All but one of the allegations were found to be "inaccurate, ambiguous, or no longer relevant" by a 1988 report titled Compliance and the Future of Arms Control (Gloria Duffy, project director). "The overall pattern on the part of both the United States and the Soviet Union," the report declared, "has been one in which compliance with agreements has clearly far out-weighted noncompliance." But the report observed:
Through this politicization of the compliance issue in the United States, the Reagan administration has at times behaved as if it desired to withdraw from all existing strategic arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. The United States has acted in a fashion that undercuts the essential process of resolving disagreements that arise with regard to treaty compliance, rather than seeking to make the process work. This, combined with Soviet stretching of the terms of agreements and stubbornness in dealing with many of the compliance issues, has caused the arms control process to lose its give-and-take.
Dynamic changes in arms control and disarmament activities came about unexpectedly when in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev began essentially unilateral steps to wind down the Cold War by accepting the political democratization of Soviet and Soviet bloc societies, and by seeking ways to end the nuclear arms race. There have been many claimants seeking credit for the demise of the Cold War. The "peace through strength" perspective of containment and confrontation has been cited as prompting Gorbachev's actions. However, this view, as Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry noted in Foreign Affairs (1992), obscures "the nature of these momentous changes. Engagement and interdependence, rather than containment, are the ruling trends of the age. Mutual vulnerability, not strength, drives security politics. Accommodation and integration, not confrontation, are the motors of change." Recognition of mutual vulnerability, accommodation, and integration were, and are, the essence of the arms control process.
The old cold warriors were replaced in the 1990s by unilateralists who disdained accommodation, distrusted arms control and feared mutual vulnerability. Their doomsday scenarios featured North Korea, Iraq, and other "radical terrorists" as threatening adversaries against whom the United States must build a missileproof umbrella regardless of how detrimental it might be to its relations with China, Russia, or its friends. Those most ardently pushing in 2001 for a strategic defense system of doubtful reliability—a Pentagon searching for missions, "defense" contractors, former cold warriors unwilling to recognize the changed world, and a woefully inexperienced President George W. Bush—appeared to be little concerned with its impact on existing arms control agreements. Any treaty, including arms control pacts, must be kept in line with changing international realities; however, in this process mutuality of interests must be a significant consideration.