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Arms Control and Strategic Stability

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To follow up a bit on what I wrote at TAPPED, there’s some utility in thinking about this point:

David [Mutimer], on the other hand, gave a thought provoking but untitled talk which I will somewhat cheekily dub Why the Left Should Dislike Arms Control. His point (in part) is that the nature of arms control agreements is both shaped by the strategic environment and helps to shape it. He argues that US-Russian bilateral agreements, in particular, can be self-serving in that they help to perpetuate the nuclear primacy of those two nations.

This is kind of interesting, and I think that the point is even more stark when we’re looking at the Washington naval treaties instead of the bilateral arms control of the Cold War. The Washington Naval Treaty, its successors, and its associated treaties amounted in one sense to an agreement between the major powers to let each other feed on the decaying corpse of China (and maintain empires in the rest of Asia) in peace. And although the treaties actually did involve some substantial disarmament and arms production limitation (they forced the scrapping of large numbers of dreadnoughts, and precluded the construction of many new ones) they didn’t do anything to fundamentally change the character of relations between the major powers.

That said, the major retrospective critiques of the treaties seem to be from the right (this is true of both the Cold War treaties and the interwar treaties), centering on the argument that unconstrained American arms production could have either won or headed off future conflict. Part of the issue is a “politics art of the possible” concern; I’m skeptical that it would have been possible to convince state leaders in either period that disarmament was an achievable goal, and thus the agreements themselves were preferable to unconstrained competition. I also think, however, that arms control serves two other purposes that are central to the “liberal” left: saving money, and reducing the chance of war. The data on the latter is a bit unclear, but its persuasive enough to make me think that unconstrained arms competition increases the chance of war, which is a bad thing. The former is also important, because while the liberal left should be reasonably comfortable with taxation to support state expenditure, spending less, rather than more, money on weapons should all things equal be a good thing.

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