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Arms control is an umbrella term for restrictions upon the development, production, stockpiling, proliferation, and usage of weapons, especially weapons of mass destruction. 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.

On a national or community level, arms control can amount to programs to control the access of private citizens to weapons. This is often referred to as gun politics, as firearms are the primary focus of such efforts in most places.


Arms control treaties and agreements are often seen as a way to avoid costly arms races which would prove counter-productive to national aims and future peace. 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 as simply 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 simply end their participation in the treaty. This was seen in Washington Naval Treaty (and the subsequent London Naval Treaty), where most participants sought to work around the limitations, some more legitimately than others. 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 simply 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 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.

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 as well as some way to allow participants to examine each other to verify that information. 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).

Nations may remain in a treaty while seeking to break the limits of that treaty as opposed to simply 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

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 conceptually differentiated 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.

History of Arms Control

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.

There were few recorded attempts to control arms during the period between this and the rise of the Roman Catholic Church. The church used its position as a trans-national organisation 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. The brutality of wars during this period led to efforts to formalise 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 Francemarker and Germanymarker

The 1817 Rush-Bagot Treaty between the United Statesmarker and the United Kingdommarker was the first arms control treaty of what can be considered the modern industrial era, leading to the demilitarisation of the Great Lakesmarker and Lake Champlainmarker region of North America. This was followed by the 1871 Treaty of Washington which led to total demilitarisation.

The industrial revolution led to the increasing mechanisation of warfare, as well as rapid advances in the development of firearms; the increased potential of devastation (which was 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.

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

After the First World War the League of Nations was set up which attempted to limit and reduce arms. However the enforcement of this policy was not effective. Various naval conferences 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 (as toxic gases) during war 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".

After World War II the United Nations was set up as a body to promote world peace. In 1957 the International Atomic Energy Agencymarker was set up to monitor the proliferation of nuclear technology, including that of nuclear weapons. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed to prevent further spread of nuclear weapons technology to countries outside the five that already possessed them: the United Statesmarker, the Soviet Unionmarker, the United Kingdommarker, Francemarker and Chinamarker.

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 Afghanistanmarker the United States never ratified the treaty, however 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 kilometres.

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

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties were signed, as START I and START II, by the US and Soviet Union, further restricting weapons. This was further moved on by the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1996 banning all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military or civilian purposes.

List of treaties and conventions related to arms control

Some of the more important international arms control agreements follow:

Proposed treaties

Arms Control Organizations

There are numerous 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 inclue:


  • Randall Forsberg, ed., Arms Control Reporter 1995-2005, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995–2004.

  • Wheeler-Bennett, Sir John Disarmament and security since Locarno 1925-1931; being the political and technical background of the general disarmament conference, 1932, New York, Howard Fertig, 1973.
  • Giuseppe Gagliano-Maurizio Boni,Sicurezza internazionale e controllo degli armamenti,New Press 2001

See also

External links

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