John Mueller is the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies and Professor of Political Science, Ohio State University. His new book, Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism From Hiroshima To Al-Qaeda, argues that nuclear weapons have had little impact on history. Although they have inspired overwrought policies and distorted spending priorities, things generally would have turned out much the same if they had never been invented. In the original post below Mueller looks at why formal nuclear arms reduction agreements are unnecessary.
The popular notion that the path to nuclear arms reduction requires formal agreements of the sort recently signed by the United States and Russia needs reexamination. Instead of fabricating elaborate agreements about reducing arms, they should just to do it.
The cold war arms buildup, after all, was not accomplished through written agreement; instead, there was a sort of free market in which each side, keeping a wary eye on the other, sought security by purchasing varying amounts of weapons and troops. As requirements and perspectives changed, so did the force structure of each side.
The same process can work in reverse: as tensions decline, so can the arms that are their consequence. Reductions are more difficult when accomplished by formal treaties requiring that an exquisitely nuanced agreement must be worked out for every abandoned nut and bolt. A negative arms race is likely to be as chaotic, halting, ambiguous, self interested, and potentially reversible as a positive one, but arms reduction will proceed most expeditiously if each side feels free to reverse any reduction it later comes to regret.
Although the signing of formal disarmament agreements can have a useful atmospheric effect, the process itself tends to delay and clutter the process. The current agreement, for example, was slowed by the Russian effort to tie it into efforts to have the United States abandon missile defenses. The Russians held on to weapons they were apparently quite willing to give up only because the weapons could be used as bargaining chips in arms reduction negotiations. That is, there were more weapons around because a formal arms control negotiating apparatus existed.
With the demise of fears of another major war, many of the arms that struck such deep fear for so long are quietly being allowed—as the bumper sticker would have it—to rust in peace. Let it happen.