Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

11.4: Nuclear Arms Control Treaties

  • Page ID
    51805
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    Nuclear Arms Control Treaties

    Arms control agreements are another Realist method of reducing conflict. They do not end war or weapons development. New technologies of death continue to arise (there was an attempt to stop the use of crossbows in medieval times), and nation-states are reluctant to give them up. Nevertheless, dozens of arms control agreements have been brokered in modern times to put limits on nuclear weapon production and use. Both Idealists and Realists understand that mutual distrust can lead to arms races that leave both sides worse off economically and can lead to war. Therefore, arms treaties make sense even if you see the world through a Realist, dog-eat-dog lens.

    The most recent example is during the 1947-91 Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR, in which the potential human and economic costs of war were vastly multiplied by the presence of nuclear weapons. Therefore, even though the two sides competed intensely, they also signed a series of nuclear arms control agreements. These include:

    -1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty: After the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly blew up the world, the two sides negotiated a series of agreements to reduce the threat of war. They set up a hot line between Washington and Moscow to facilitate communication. Also, since radioactive fallout from above-ground nuclear testing was getting into food and drink all over the world (including mothers’ milk), the two sides agreed to do their tests underground, not in the atmosphere, underwater, or space.

    -1968 Non Proliferation Treaty. The existing nuclear powers agreed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries; other countries agreed to refrain from making nukes. The treaty was only partially successful; the original four nuclear powers are now nine. However, without the treaty, it would probably be 50 or more. The original nuclear powers also pledged to eliminate their own nuclear weapons, but there is no sign of this happening.

    -1972 SALT I and 1979 SALT II. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties for the first time limited the number of nuclear weapons on each side. This was a huge step, since the two sides had been speedily increasing their arsenals beyond all reason for years. Whatever their faults, give President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger their due for negotiating these agreements.

    -The START Treaties (1991, 1993, 1997, 2002, 2010, etc.). After the Cold War ended, the U.S. and Russia for the first time agreed to reduce the number of their nuclear weapons. Every U.S. President of both parties supported and extended these treaties. Each side went over and watched the other side cut up missiles and bombs. Each side is now down to about 5,000 nukes, still enough to blow up the world several times, but way less than before. Progress! However, neither Putin nor Trump has made any moves to renew the latest treaty.

    -1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The CTBT bans all nuclear testing, in an attempt to stop research into new weapons and retesting of existing ones. Most of the nuclear powers have now agreed to it and have stopped testing. Senate Republicans refused to ratify it, but the U.S. has stopped testing. Only the rogue state of North Korea continues nuclear testing.

    In 1972, the U.S. and USSR signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. However, Bush 2 withdrew from the treaty in 2002, when John Bolton was Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. In 1987, the U.S. and USSR signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty against medium range missiles. Citing alleged Russian violations, Donald Trump withdrew from the treaty in 2019, when John Bolton was National Security Advisor.


    11.4: Nuclear Arms Control Treaties is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lawrence Meacham.

    • Was this article helpful?