Auteur: Hugo Klijn
Dossier: ‘Are Arms controlling us, or can we take back control?‘
Gasthoofdredacteur: Hugo Klijn

This edition of UN Forum is dedicated to arms control. In recent times, arms control has re-emerged as a topical issue, but sadly for the wrong reasons. One may look at arms control as a kind of barometer, measuring geopolitical pressures among states. Given the current upsurge in great power rivalry, it was probably to be expected that existing agreements would come under fire, or that no political will is being mustered to update regimes, let alone establish new ones. Having more prominent actors now on the geopolitical scene than during the Cold War hasn’t made things easier. And historical experience teaches us that during a transitional phase from one ‘world order’ to the next, neither status quo powers nor aspiring powers are particularly interested in having their military capabilities circumscribed by legally, or even politically binding frameworks. Indeed, this seems to bode ill for the near future of arms control. But many countries’ security hinges on these multilateral arrangements, especially in Europe, so the requirement remains to address arms control issues and try to engage great powers in discussing mutually beneficial instruments and measures. A tall order, but at the same time a pressing task.

It may be somewhat of a euphemism to state that arms control is in crisis. Already for quite some time, several arms control arrangements have been suffering from inadequate compliance or, more recently, are being cancelled altogether. During the summer of 2019 the Trump administration announced the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, the landmark accord signed in 1987 by presidents Reagan and Gorbachev that banned the entire category of ground launched intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles and helped to bring the Cold War to an end. Last May, the US also decided to ditch the multilateral Open Skies Treaty, operational since 2002, that allows 34 countries to conduct military observation flights over each other’s territories. In both cases, Russian treaty violations were invoked as direct reasons for these steps. In 2018, the US had already abandoned the nuclear deal with Iran, or JCPOA – a joint agreement involving Russia, China and 3 EU-countries curbing Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. These three cases were all initiated by the current US administration, but the story of the crisis in arms control is bigger than that.

What is Arms Control?

Essentially, arms control concerns efforts to control or limit the number of weapons and the way in which they can be used in order to preserve, enhance or restore international peace and security. The term arms control is often used in a wider sense, referring as well to the associated domains of disarmament (the reduction or elimination of certain weapon systems) and non-proliferation (of weapons of mass destruction or conventional capabilities such as missiles).[1] Finally, arms control is to be considered in conjunction with confidence and security building measures, or CSBMs, which may serve to strengthen arms control regimes by increasing transparency and can play a role in verification.[2]

Historically, arms control efforts have been undertaken in response to technological developments that have made wars ever more devastating. The Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907, an initiative proposed by Russian Tsar Nicholas II “on behalf of disarmament and the permanent peace of the world”, produced declarations on banning the use of certain explosives and asphyxiating gases. In 1925, after the horrors of World War I, countries concluded the ‘Geneva Protocol’ Treaty that prohibited chemical and bacteriological methods of warfare. The Cold War, dominated by the terrifying prospect of nuclear annihilation, ushered in the era of bilateral arms control between the US and the Soviet Union. After the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, both parties worked out a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty the following year, as the first of a range of nuclear treaties and agreements. This period of increasing détente would also yield multilateral arms control arrangements, such as the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that entered into force in 1970, followed in 1975 by the Biological Weapons Convention. The end of the Cold War opened the way for addressing conventional assets as well, and in 1990 NATO and Warsaw Pact countries signed the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) which became operational in 1992, the same year in which the Conference on Disarmament’s 40 member-states agreed the final text of the Chemical Weapons Convention, banning the production and use of chemical and toxin weapons.[3]

Why Arms Control?

As opinions remain divided over the causes of armed conflict, so the debate on the purposes of arms control will continue. In this context, it has been argued that these may vary from ‘disarmament’ per se (reducing levels mitigates the risk of war), to ‘stability’ (seeking a balance between offensive and defensive systems) and ‘advantage’ (also a balancing act, be it by denying others to acquire certain weapon technologies).[4] In this thinking the CFE Treaty, limiting weapons deemed instrumental for offensive operations, fits into the first category; nuclear deterrence, including agreements on defensive capabilities, counts as a stability regime and, finally, the Non-Proliferation Treaty was meant to cement a competitive edge of five nuclear ‘haves’ vis-à-vis other ‘non-haves’.

In a broader sense, arms control arrangements testify to a level of détente between relevant actors, to a joint commitment to risk-reduction and a collective sense of responsibility to improve international security, making good on promises to deliver ‘cooperative security’. Since the often complicated and technical agreements take a long time in preparing, arms control demands sustained periods of bilateral and/or multilateral diplomacy, involving both civilian and military negotiators. These processes in themselves often serve as confidence building frameworks.
Finally, the eventual implementation of agreements requires diplomatic fora to exchange information and discuss compliance issues while the verification regimes built into these arrangements, including observation or inspection visits to military facilities, entail a host of military-to-military contacts between armed forces that would otherwise be non-existent. In other words, the sum of arms control amounts to more than its constituent parts and produces a culture of multilateral cooperation and transparency that is beneficial to overall security.


So when did the arms control edifice start to crumble? At the end of the day, successful arms control is a function of trust between states. Until this very day, the Washington-Moscow relationship is by far the most important equation in this respect, even though a new US-China dynamic is developing. The post-Cold War euphoria was actually rather short-lived, and before long disagreements erupted over NATO’s interventions in former Yugoslavia, and certainly over the Alliance’s budding enlargement agenda. A first crack in the arms control wall may have occurred in 1999 when countries still managed to sign the Adapted CFE Treaty (after the disbandment of the Warsaw Pact the bloc-to-bloc approach of CFE had become obsolete), but NATO countries refused to submit the document for ratification in protest over Russian military deployments in Georgia and Moldova that lacked host-nation consent. The atmosphere took another turn for the worse when in 2002 the Bush administration decided to cancel the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, an agreement to limit anti-missile systems in order to ensure mutual vulnerability and, therefore, to curb a race in strategic offensive arms.

2007 saw both the US proposal to deploy a third leg of its national missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic (directed against potential Iranian and North-Korean threats, but much to Moscow’s annoyance) and the Russian decision to ‘suspend’ its implementation of CFE, although the treaty contains no such provision. Under presidents Obama and Medvedev the US and Russia did manage to conclude ‘New START’, a treaty imposing new limits on nuclear warheads and launchers, but the extension of this agreement, which expires in February 2021, looks highly doubtful. If indeed this treaty is not renewed, it will be the first time since the 1960s without any nuclear arms control arrangements at all. This would be the starkest possible reminder of the dire situation of arms control.

Great power restraint, a crucial foundation for arms control, seems to be in short supply. As stated above, this may be a traditional characteristic of transitional geopolitics. But it doesn’t absolve European countries from the duty to enhance their security by discussing remedies against this state of affairs. All the more so because the world may be on the verge of technological breakthroughs that could bring the arms race to new and unregulated domains.

Articles in this edition of VN Forum

In this edition of UN Forum we will dwell on several aspects of arms control. Sico van der Meer from the Clingendael Institute for International Relations touches on developments with regard to agreements on weapons of mass destruction; Julia Berghofer from the European Leadership Network writes on the Open Skies Treaty that may shortly be abandoned by the United States; Hugo Klijn, also from Clingendael, sheds his light on the ailing CFE treaty and Vienna Document, as well as on ongoing discussions in the OSCE and, finally, Maaike Verbruggen from the Free University in Brussels deals with the question how to regulate new weapon systems with autonomous functionalities.

Hugo Klijn

Hugo Klijn Klijn is a senior research fellow at the Clingendael Institute of International Relations. He works on Trans-Atlantic security, arms control and Russia and Eastern-Europe. 

Explainer: the UN and arms control

The UN’s forerunner, the ill-fated League of Nations, included ‘the reduction of armaments’ in its Covenant and set up a Permanent Armaments Commission. From 1932-34 an ambitious, but unsuccessful, World Disarmament Conference was held under the League’s auspices. After World War II, the UN’s Charter empowered both the Security Council and the General Assembly to consider principles and plans for arms control and disarmament. In 1957 the International Atomic Energy Agency was established to promote the peaceful use of atomic energy. In 1978 the Conference on Disarmament, succeeding several other fora, was recognized as the primary multilateral disarmament body of the international community. Furthermore, the UN has facilitated the negotiation of several multilateral arms control treaties, such as the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions and the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which hasn’t yet entered into force). In 2017, a General Assembly mandated conference adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and opened it for signature and ratification. The current debate on regulating so-called Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems takes place in the Geneva-based Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.  

[1] See, for instance, how NATO defines these terms:

[2] This is how the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe describes CSBMs:

[3] For an overview, see the Arms Control and Non-proliferation Catalog by the Congressional Research Service:

[4] John. D. Maurer, The Purposes of Arms Control (Texas National Security Review, Volume 2, Issue 1, November 2018: