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Tripartite Arms Control

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I enjoyed Maurer and Maurer’s discussion of the Washington Naval Treaty, which concludes that unfortunately the conditions that enabled the success of arms control in the 1920s don’t hold today.

The dangerous decade of the 1930s and the breakdown of arms control provide a much better fit for understanding the strategic predicament that the United States finds itself in today than the period leading up to the Washington Conference. The domestic political conditions of the great powers that produced agreement in Washington a hundred years ago do not hold today. Until China’s rulers are convinced that expanding their nuclear forces does not confer strategic advantage and the contest over Ukraine is resolved, meaningful arms control stands little chance.

Though the short-term prospects are grim, the Washington Treaty can confer one lesson for arms control’s long-term viability: Historically, major breakthroughs in arms control have depended on rivals’ apprehension of American power. British and Japanese leaders responded to Harding’s proposal in part because they recognized the potential consequences of failing to meet on America’s terms. Chinese and Russian leaders do not seem to feel such urgency today. American leaders should heed the advice of the Strategic Posture Commission and get serious about meeting the military challenges posed by great power rivals. This means recapitalizing America’s nuclear forces and enhancing conventional, space, AI, and cyber capabilities to deter war. Indeed, such recapitalization holds the best possibility for future arms control success.

This last bit is important. The willingness of Japan and especially the United Kingdom to take arms control seriously in 1921 was founded upon fear that the United States could rapidly overwhelm either or both in naval construction. American industrial mobilization in World War II demonstrated that this concern was well-conceived. This reality gave the United States enormous leverage over the 1921 talks, and nothing close to it holds today. Still, it’s important to remember that successful strategic arms control between great powers has happened at least twice in the last 104 years, which should offer some hope even in the very grim situation that we’ve put ourselves into.

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