Arms Control and Disarmament

Richard Dean Burns

Historians have been slow to grasp the significant, occasionally dominating, role that arms control negotiations played in Cold War diplomacy—a situation undoubtedly the result of the often mind-numbing technical aspects of these lengthy deliberations. In the prenuclear era, political disputes might spark threatening military buildups, but political dimensions remained the focus of subsequent negotiations. This changed after 1950 as weapons systems themselves took on a political character. "The arms race … was both a result of the Cold War and a cause," as the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev emphasized, "as it constantly provided new stimuli for continued rivalry." The arms control pacts that gradually emerged from various multilateral and bilateral negotiations helped neutralize the insecurities brought on by the constant arrival of new weapons systems. "The decision to reduce arms," Gorbachev concluded, "became an important step on the road to ending confrontation and creating healthier relations between East and West."

Arms control and disarmament agreements were traditionally designed to accomplish two essential purposes: to stabilize the military climate and to diminish the military violence in any subsequent hostilities. The various arrangements, which reduced, limited, and regulated armaments, provided a more stable international environment; but could not themselves resolve other threatening, contentious issues. Controlling armaments had to be coupled with diplomatic resolve so that in an atmosphere temporarily cleared of insecurities inspired by unregulated weaponry, statesmen might deal with critical political, social, and economic differences.


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York, Herbert F. Race to Oblivion: A Participant's View of the Arms Race. New York, 1970. Interesting for its particular insights into science and politics.

See also Armed Neutralities ; Arms Transfers and Trade ; Balance of Power ; Cold War Evolution and Interpretations ; Cold War Origins ; Cold War Termination ; Deterrence ; North Atlantic Treaty Organization ; Nuclear Strategy and Diplomacy ; Outer Space ; Post–Cold War Policy ; Science and Technology ; Superpower Diplomacy ; Treaties .

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