Fatton -The Impotence of Conventional Arms Control

Here we have a comment by network member Ben Goldsworthy on the paper ‘The Impotence of Conventional Arms Control: Why Do International Regimes Fail When They Are Most Needed?’ by Lionel P. Fatton. It’s available here.


Here’s what Ben thought earlier in the year when he wrote some updates for the website that I’ve been putting up. If you’ve anything to add, feel free to pop it in the comment box at the bottom.

This paper argues that arms control regimes are fair-weather friends, effective only during pre-existing periods of mutual détente and collapsing as soon as tensions raise and military thinking begins to push out diplomacy in something of a vicious cycle. The authors explain this theoretically through the ‘phenomenon of contextual adaptation’ and practically through the examples of early 20th-century Japan and 21st-century Russia, and their experiences with the Washington System and the Treaty on CFE, respectively.

A couple more examples would have been appreciated in order to better support the case, as well as perhaps some where things were pulled back from the brink (if they exist) in order to facilitate an examination into why they turned out differently, but nonetheless the authors make a compelling case that rather undermines the utility of arms control instruments. With the US government currenly shut down (again) due to partisan intrasigence on both sides (again), I’ve been wondering if perhaps some sort of arms control agreement might be necessary in order to enshrine the depths to which neither party can sink to win political points at the expense of the nation. This paper suggests that idea is unlikely to go anywhere whilst both parties are at odds.

This phenomenon of contexual adaptation also suggests a risk of introducing autonomous machines into the conflict decision-making process. Just as the military’s sway in government increases as a result of their expertise being increasingly sought out in response to a perceived threat, an autonomous system (say, one made by the military) could be just as susceptible to seeing every problem as nail-like through its hammer-like lens. Without mandating that all autonomous weapons systems be programmed by Quakers, I’m not sure how we get around this, as any attempt to write a set of global standards to which all AWSes comply will be just as prone to adaptation.

Ben Goldsworthy, Lancaster University

Williamson – Hard Law, Soft Law, and Non-Law in Multilateral Arms Control: Some Compliance Hypotheses

This week, we are looking at Hard Law, Soft Law, and Non-Law in Multilateral Arms Control: Some Compliance Hypotheses by Richard L. Williamson (Chicago Journal of International Law 4, no. 1 (2003): 59–82), available here. It is a great overview of the different pros and cons that hard law, soft law and political norms have in the arena of arms control. Definitely worth reading. Let us know what you think in the comments below, or get in touch to join the network.

Here’s what we thought:

In this article the author provides a broad overview of legal vs non-legal approaches to addressing the question of arms control. In it, he argues that the ‘overall compliance record in arms control is a good one’ (61), but points to the fact that law is not always the best option to make the world a safer place. While law is an important factor, the author calls for a mixed approach adopting ‘a full complement of treaties, modified or supplemented over time to meet changing conditions, and supported with soft law and non-law measures’ (82).

The author’s analysis is certainly interesting, and a useful reference for those factors that make law more or less of an effective measure in the context of international arms control. However, while the author asserts that the overall compliance record in arms control is a good one, this is not to say that there aren’t further transgressions taking place that we don’t know about, given the fact that, by their very nature, States will attempt to avoid detection when it comes to breaking terms of any agreements or international laws that may apply.

The author’s arguments apply only because they apply to the world as we understand it (or rather understood it in 2003); but this is not to say that they won’t change in the future, or as our understanding of the present-day world changes. We must also then consider the role of non-State actors and even big business in the control of arms, and even the competing forces at works within individual nation States that again, serve to raise questions about the validity of the author’s arguments when made on such a broad, sweeping scale.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster  University

This piece was excellent and I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately for the purposes of comment, it was an overview of an area, rather than making an argument. Something that the author mentions in terms of verifying that states are complying with the relevant measures is the actions of foreign intelligence agencies. We have seen this recently where Israeli intelligence found evidence of Iran breaching its obligations under the nuclear deal they agree with the P5+1. This did make me wonder if, in circumstances where an arms control measure has no verification body, are revelations made possible due to the behaviours of intelligence agents part of a bigger political game? For example, if the American CIA found evidence of Russia cheating on its arms control obligations, the obvious next action would be to expose them in order to force compliance with their obligations. However, it would also be rational for the Americans to sit on this intelligence if a larger win could be gained. For example, Russia could be blackmailed, the timing of the intelligence release could be done at a crucial moment for Russia in international politics, or it could be released to move focus away from American arms control compliance.

As we know, international law cannot be separated from international politics. But, perhaps in thinking only in legal logic, we international law thinkers miss key bits of information that could inform a greater level of understanding.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

In contrast to the previous paper, and though they concur that the Biological Weapons Convention is a failure (for traditional reasons rather than any of indeterminate language), this paper argues that soft law certainly has its place in the diplomat’s arms control box of tricks, along with hard law and ‘non-law’. The authors propose that hard law is best suited to situations where invasive monitoring is required, or when compliance is easy, whilst soft law wins out ‘if it is a derivative of, amplifies, or interprets a binding obligation’. The analysis of the pros and cons of ‘non-law’ instruments (e.g. the threat of mutually-assured destruction or a technological inability to not comply) is a little less developed, but the authors conclude that these are likely to be effective ‘when the military utility of acquiring or deploying a particular armament is modest, and the political costs of noncompliance would be large’.

It seems that effective soft law can best be thought of as chipping the final details off of a sculpture built up out of hard law. I’m less convinced about the efficacy of non-law such as ‘parallel restraint’, as the current lack of restrictions on the use of cyberwarfare and its subsequent prevelance suggests the lack of a clear red light is equivalent to a green one in the eyes of military planners. As one final criticism, the authors write that, ‘[w]hile the record of compliance with arms control treaties is far from perfect, it is statistically quite good’ and that ‘...most countries will comply most of the time’. The issue with this is that an arms control regime is better thought of as a High Reliability Organisation, and Normal Accident Theory and talk of compliance being ‘statistically quite good’ doesn’t have much of a place in the control of weapons that can cause catastrophic damage with a single use.

Ben Goldsworthy, Lancaster University


N.B. For those interested, the main image is of Ford and Brezhnev signing a joint communique folowing the Vladivostok Summit Meeting on Arms Control (Photo from the Gerald R. Ford Library, taken by David Hume Kennerly 1974).

Beard – The Shortcomings of Indeterminacy in Arms Control Regimes

This week we continue our look at arms control. Here we consider the article ‘The Shortcomings of Indeterminacy in Arms Control Regimes: The Case of the Biological Weapons Convention‘ by Jack M. Beard (The American Journal of International Law 101, no. 2 (April 2007): 271–321, avaialble here). It is a fascinating look at the Biological Weapons Convention using game theory and rationalist positions on arms control, and gives an intriguing insight into how states operate in this area.

Take a look and let us know your think about the issues. Here’s what we thought:

In this article the author argues that the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972 is fundamentally flawed in a modern context as it is based on a ‘soft law’ approach that relies too heavily on indeterminacy of meaning. To demonstrate this failing, the author cites the suggestion that rogue States and terrorists possess biological weapons, and points to the fact that a significant number of States have still not joined the convention after all these year years. In response, the author calls for the United States to re-evaluate its position on the BWC and for all parties to embrace a new hard-law approach.

While I certainly agree with the premise of the author’s argument, I can’t help but wonder what impact the BWC could possibly have in a world where (by the author’s own admission) non-State actors have access to these types of weapons, that pose perhaps one of the biggest threats to our modern-day world. While the author is right to draw attention to the BWC’s failings in a modern context, the author steers away from dealing with economic, regulatory and trade-related factors that give non-State actors access to the sorts of tools and equipment that enables the production and/or trade in biological and chemical weapons.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster  University

I thought this paper was really interesting. I myself have done some work around game theory and international legal regulation of weapon systems controlled by artificial intelligence. I find game theory to be really useful for understanding arms control. After all, states do try to play games and defect from agreements when it is in their interests.

We see today the potential falling apart of the Iran Deal. The article notes Iran reneging on agreements from previous deals. This obviously raises the issue that if Iran is a nation that plays international games, what is the point in having any deal? Simply put, some regulation is better than nothing. This reminds me of the work of Marxist historian E.P. Thompson on the rule of law. He suggests that the rule of law is an ‘unqualified human good’ because even in stares that oppressive states that often act unlawfully, they must give the appearance of acting lawfully. In doing so, this limits their very worst behaviours. So even where the rule of law is almost ignored, it still does something positive however small an impact that may be.

I think this can apply to arms control regimes also. Even where Iran (or any other defector nation) plays games, tries to get around arms control rules, or breaks rules, they do so whilst giving the illusion that they comply with the arms control regimes. These regimes therefore act to hamper and impair acts contrary to the rules, however small that impact may be. Arguably, we could therefore view arms control as an unqualified human good in much the same way that Thompson viewed the rule of law.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

UPDATE: added 6/5/19, written earlier

With a damning indictment of the failure of the Biological Weapons Convention, this paper argues that the convention was doomed from the start not only, as is often assumed, ‘because it lacks mandatory transparency measures and a dedicated monitoring organization’, but due to its ‘use of indeterminate language in key provisions’. The failure of the BWC ‘illuminates the hazards of choosing indeterminate language to perform critical regime functions amid unstable security conditions’. It grants would be cheaters the chance to ‘[cloak] defection in plausible legality’, thus legitimizing non-compliance. The paper was interesting, and it’s hard to argue with its conclusions that the BWC is unfit for purpose, although I’m still inclined to believe that biological weapons are such a poor and unreliable tool that reality serves as a sufficient check on proliferation.

Ben Goldsworth, Lancaster University

Let us know what you think below.

Fuhrmann and Lupu – Do Arms Control Treaties Work?: Assessing the Effectiveness of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

This week begins a series of discussions on arms control. Whilst we’ve looked at this topic before, this series (and the next two) are all the suggestions of TTAC21 member Maaike Verbruggen. We thank her for the great spread of interesting articles she has found and submitted to the rest fo the group.

The paper this week is ‘Do Arms Control Treaties Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’ by Matthew Fuhrmann and Yonatan Lupu (International Studies Quarterly 60, no. 3 (2016): 530–39; available here).

Without further ado, here is what we think. Please let us know your thoughts in the comment below.

In this paper the authors outline research that addresses the question of whether the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has limited the spread of nuclear weapons. While the authors point to the range of debates on this subject, with significant studies falling on both sides of the fence, the authors’ study demonstrates that the NPT has had a significant impact on reducing the probability that States will pursue or acquire nuclear weapons.

While this study is of course interesting in its own, one of the other useful contributions it makes is its role in demonstrating that international treaties can indeed make a significant impact on the global landscape. As the authors argue: ‘Policymakers therefore should not be overly dismissive of treaties as a tool for meeting key challenges in the 21st century’ (23). However, while I find the conclusions of the study encouraging, I would still question the wider context surrounding the NPT itself, as the NPT does not exist in isolation, and sits within the context of many decades of Cold War anxiety that has left an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of many people, which may then have fed into the likelihood of State actors ratifying and then adhering to the strictures of the NPT. Can we ever say for certain that the NPT is the defining causal factor behind the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons? I’d argue perhaps not.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster  University


The main thrust of this article is to show that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) works. I would have expected it to for those states who are signatories. Seeing as states cannot be bound by rules they do not consent to in international law, it makes sense that only states who agree with the NPT rules would sign up to abide by them. Considering that nuclear proliferation is in nobody’s interest, this also makes sense from a security perspective. However, North Korea are notable state parties who have left the treaty. We see currently the US, South Korean, and international attempts to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear warfare capability. Considering this is outside of the NPT, it would seem that the attempted de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is taking place using pure diplomacy (including altering sanctions). If concerted diplomatic efforts (and possibly even military action) is needed to keep states with WMD ambitions in check, then the NPT alone is not enough. Preventing the spread of WMDs is something which all states have an interest in, and the NPT should be recognised as a part of the solution, as this article claims.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

UPDATE: Added 29/4/2019, written earlier

The author attempt to assess whether NPT ratification correlates positively with nuclear nonproliferation, controlling for a range of variables such as the side taken in the US-USSR rivalry, membership of an existing rivalry and whether they are a ‘personalist regime’. Not only do the authors discover ‘the strongest evidence to date of a causal relationship between the NPT and nuclear proliferation’, but the use of multiple controls enable them to also find that ‘the size of the effect of NPT ratification on the probability of nuclear weapons pursuit is about 3 times the effect of belonging to an enduring rivalry and about 7 times the size of the effect of belonging to an alliance with the U.S. or Soviet Union’ (although that one’s a binary-encoded value, which rather leaves the Non-Aligned Movement in the cold). The conclusions seem promising for future arms control regimes, although as we shall see in a later paper that may not always be the case.

Ben Goldsworthy, Lancaster University

Let us know what you think!