#OnlyTogether Multilateralism and arms control: the end of an era?

multilateral cooperation

#OnlyTogether Multilateralism and arms control: the end of an era?

By Mr Marc Finaud, Associate Fellow, Global Fellowship Initiative and Former Head of Arms Control and Disarmement

While the Cold War and post-Cold War periods have been propitious for multilateral arms control and disarmament agreements, in recent years this cooperative approach has been challenged by great-power politics and unilateralism. The COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to reverse this course and pave the way for a safer world and increased human security.

Bilateral Superpower Agreements

Arms control was a typical brainchild of the Cold War. It appeared after the world found itself on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe as a result of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Unsurprisingly, this crisis led the then two superpowers, the United States and Soviet Union, to see the need for strategic stability and bilateral mechanisms for nuclear risk reduction. Thus they concluded the 1963 Hotline Agreement, the 1971 Nuclear Accidents Agreement, the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the 1973 Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, and treaties on the limitation or reduction of strategic nuclear weapons (SALT, SORT, START), intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), and nuclear testing (the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty and 1976 Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty).

A Multilateral Architecture

However, because of the role played by the superpowers’ military alliances – NATO and the Warsaw Pact – and the interest of the whole international community in strengthening security, multilateral agreements were negotiated, often on the initiative of the superpowers: the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) banning all nuclear tests except those held underground; the 1967 Outer Space Treaty banning the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space or on celestial bodies; the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and promote disarmament; the 1971 Seabed Treaty banning the deployment of nuclear weapons on the seabed; the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) prohibiting these weapons altogether; the 1977 ENMOD Convention banning the hostile use of environmental modification techniques; and the 1982 ‘Inhumane Weapons’ Convention (CCW).

In a regional context, several nuclear-weapon-free zones were established (in the Antarctic, Latin America, South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa and Central Asia), while the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) led to massive conventional disarmament.

The Humanitarian Paradigm

After the end of the Cold War, in a context characterised by the relaxation of tension, the international community adopted new instruments: the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC); the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); the 1997 Antipersonnel Landmine Ban Convention (APLB); the 2001 UN Programme of Action (PoA) on Small Arms and Light Weapons; the 2008 Cluster Munitions Convention (CMC); the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT); and the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The main paradigm that inspired the initiators and supporters of such treaties was the strong will to protect civilians, who had become the main victims of conflicts and armed violence.

Major Challenges to the Architecture

But in recent years this complex and effective architecture began to experience major challenges. The United States withdrew from some important bilateral treaties: the ABM Treaty in 2002 and the INF Treaty in 2019. The 2010 New START Treaty expires in February 2021, and talks on its possible extension or replacement have so far been inconclusive, raising concern about the dangerous vacuum that would result if the treaty is not extended.

In the regional context, the CFE Treaty was affected by tensions in Europe after the 2008 Georgia war and the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia, which suspended its membership of the treaty. On its part, the United States withdrew from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty that had allowed mutual aerial surveillance. Within the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), progress on updating previously agreed documents on confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs) is stalling.

At the multilateral level, the CTBT is still not in force 24 years after being opened for signature, because it lacks the ratification of eight states (China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United States).

Deep Divisions on Nuclear Disarmament

While the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force was celebrated in 2020, its five-year Review Conference was postponed to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but deep divisions persist among the states parties. The nuclear-weapon states continue to call for a step-by-step, long-term approach to nuclear disarmament that would allow them to modernise their arsenals while lowering the threshold of nuclear weapons use; and the non-nuclear-weapon states call for more progress in implementing the commitments to nuclear disarmament. Some 122 states supported the TPNW, which makes the possession, development, use or threat of use of nuclear weapons contrary to international law. The treaty has been rejected by the states that possess nuclear weapons and their allies, but will enter into force soon, after 50 ratifications.

Multilateralism is a Must

The transnational threats that the world is facing – the climate crisis, pandemics, and the risk of nuclear war – all call for multilateral responses. No state, however powerful, can deal with such threats on its own. The current pandemic should make all states aware of this fact.




As the world attempts to navigate yet another major disruption, we continue to look to one another to identify sustainable solutions and rebuild better. It is time for our world to take conscious steps towards unity and to work together so as to move beyond our preconceptions and challenge our stagnation. This #OnlyTogether blog series provides you with expert insights and the beginnings of a roadmap to a more peaceful and secure future. This blog series was launched to celebrate our 25th Anniversary, discover our 3-day event programme here.


Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.


Marc Finaud is a former French diplomat who was seconded to the GCSP from 2004 to 2013 and is now a staff member. At the GCSP, Mr Finaud was leading activities related to Arms Proliferation.