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Conventional Arms Control is Impotent as an Instrument of Peace

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Release Date:

June 2016

Arms control regimes fail when they are needed most. When international tensions run high, governments tend to listen to military advice. This undermines the prospect and stability of arms control.

In March 2015, amid tensions with the West over Ukraine, Russia pulled out of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), an agreement aiming at preventing conflict in central Europe with NATO members. Moscow’s decision is another example of a country disengaging from conventional arms control when relations with other member states deteriorate. This raises an important question: can conventional arms control survive periods of tension and preserve peace?

The answer is no. When international tensions are high, conventional arms control regimes cannot be established and break down if already set up. Their prospect and stability depend on an atmosphere of détente between countries. Therefore, these regimes fail when most needed and are impotent as instruments of peace.

To understand this impotence, we need to study the role of military institutions. In hostile environments, governments tend to rely more heavily on the military for advice. The complexity of military affairs makes this unavoidable, so military influence on foreign policy increases. Government leaders consequently absorb the biases inherent to the military, which include worst-case analyses and an exclusive focus on military assets to guarantee national security. These biases are incompatible with the exercise of arms control.

To illustrate how domestic politics affects arms control, it is useful to study Japan’s participation in the naval arms control framework (the Washington System) during the interbellum and Russia’s relationship with the CFE after the Cold War. Both regimes, established respectively in 1922 and 1990, were set up amid improving relations between member states and decreasing military influence within Japan and the Soviet Union. The 1919-1920 Paris Peace Conference was instrumental in the rapprochement between Tokyo and Washington. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 and the 1990 agreement on the reunification of Germany solved two disputes that had kept the Soviet Union and the West apart for decades.

On the other hand, the Washington System and the CFE broke down when government perception of the international environment deteriorated. The international tensions that emerged around the early 1930s Manchurian crisis and the 2004 NATO enlargement, and later the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, heightened military influence in the two countries. Japan withdrew from the arms control regime in 1936 and Russia in 2015 (Table 1).

Table 1. Findings of case studies on the Washington System and the CFE.

This does not mean that conventional arms control regimes, once established, cannot have positive effects. Arms control may help reduce further the level of insecurity among member states by improving perceptions of others’ intentions and the predictability of behaviour. This in turn weakens the influence of the military inside countries. When arms control mitigates the perceived insecurity, armed forces lose importance in the eyes of government leaders.

While the Japanese and Russian cases both illustrate the impotence of arms control in times of tension, there are also some differences. The decline of military influence following the establishment of the conventional arms control regime was deeper in Japan. This allowed Tokyo to disregard the position of the navy on arms control during the Geneva and London conferences of 1927 and 1930. Inversely, the Russian military successfully pushed for the partial revision of the CFE in 1999. This is because the perception the leadership had of the international environment was more debated in Russia. Contrary to the Japanese government during the 1920s, the Kremlin’s assertion that the West held benign intentions was strongly contested by some domestic actors during the 1990s. The military was not politically isolated and consequently maintained a certain influence.

This highlights, once more, the centrality of domestic politics in arms control dynamics. The perception of the international environment may be a major political issue, manipulated by domestic actors seeking to advance their interests. These actors’ opposition to government perception helps the military maintain influence on foreign policy.

Finally, it is necessary to say something about nuclear arms control regimes. While they seem more resistant to international tensions than conventional arrangements, decision-makers should nonetheless keep the above in mind regarding nuclear agreements, especially the 2015 Iran deal. The military possesses high influence in Iran and some prominent domestic actors continue to claim that the West holds hostile intentions. Therefore, it should not be assumed that this regime is shielded from military assaults. Western countries, the United States in particular, must give heed to the image they portray to the Iranians. Otherwise, the military institution could be put in a position to threaten the stability of the agreement.

Lionel P. Fatton is Research Associate at CERI-Sciences Po and Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. He is the author of “The impotence of conventional arms control: why do international regimes fail when they are most needed?”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming. It is available here.

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