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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: June 2018

14 - Arms control

from Part III - The traditional agenda: States, war and law



This chapter begins by discussing what arms control is and why it has featured so prominently in world politics, even since the end of the Cold War. After a discussion of the various weapons that are covered by arms-control processes, and the legal regimes that accompany these, the chapter outlines some of the ways in which arms control can be conceptualised and how various schools of thought in International Relations (IR) can be related to arms-control practices. We then look at the specific case of the nuclear weapons regime, as more states acquire nuclear weapons, and as calls increase for the elimination of these particular weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

What is arms control?

Arms control can be described simply as any arrangement made to limit the weapons that might be used in warfare. It can be conducted as a formal process involving treaties, or as an informal practice between states. These processes or steps can be unilateral, bilateral or multilateral; the most essential element is a willingness to cooperate with other states to achieve security interests. These interests could be ‘exclusively those of the cooperating states themselves’ or interests that are ‘more widely shared’ in the international community (Bull 1961: 2).

Arms control has been applied to both WMDs and to conventional weapons, although it has been related most heavily to WMDs. These are nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological weapons, and are categorised as WMDs because of their enormous potential for causing mass casualties. (These are nevertheless very different types of weapon systems, and their lethality and damage potential vary greatly.) While WMDs are rightly abhorred for their capacity for destruction, so-called conventional weapons – that is, weapons that are not WMDs – have received less attention, largely because of the implied right of sovereign states to possess a normal or ‘conventional’ weapons capability. Although the focus for arms control continues to be on WMDs, certain kinds of conventional weapons are also now being considered as appropriate for restriction or elimination.

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Burns, Richard Dean 2009, The evolution of arms control: From antiquity to the nuclear age, Westport, CT: Praeger. A useful overview of the historical antecedents that inform current thinking on arms control; also examines many oft-neglected background issues such as processes of demilitarisation, attempts to outlaw war and the regulation of arms manufacturing industries.
Cirincione, Joseph, Wolfsthal, John B. and Rajkumar, Miriam 2005, Deadly arsenals: Nuclear, biological and chemical threats, ed., Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A concise and useful overview of WMDs, including state possessors, examples of successes in non-proliferation and challenges still facing the non-proliferation regime.
International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament 2009, Eliminating nuclear threats: A practical agenda for global policymakers, Report of the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Assesses the threat of nuclear catastrophe and proposes a number of short- and medium-term practical steps governments can take to reduce the dangers of accidental or deliberate nuclear weapon use.
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) 2016, The SIPRI yearbook: Armaments, disarmaments and international security, Oxford: Oxford University Press. An excellent resource, updated annually, reviewing global and regional security developments and listing armaments holdings of key states.