The prospects for meaningful arms control negotiations seem slim these days. In recent years, commentators have speculated widely about the decline of arms control in international politics. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has only exacerbated this sense of pessimism about the future of arms control.
Despite this, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic continue to affirm arms control’s role in preserving strategic stability. In NATO’s most recent Strategic Concept, Western allies touted arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation as central to strategic stability alongside “effective deterrence and defence” and “meaningful and reciprocal political dialogue.” That three-part formulation – arms control and disarmament, effective deterrence and defence, and political dialogue – is a familiar one in allied circles. NATO has relied on variations of that formula for decades.
This paper by Susan Colburn (Duke University) argues that looking to the past can help us consider the advantages and potential risks resulting from this broad approach. Colburn takes the case of NATO’S Euromissiles struggle to argue that there are not neat lessons to be drawn from history nor are there any easy frameworks that can be exported and applied to the problems of the present. Instead, thinking about the challenges that faced NATO in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s can provide new perspective on the difficulties in today’s security landscape, particularly in Europe.
Colburn concludes by arguing that the history of the Euromissiles reminds us that public pressure can shape arms control, but there are few guarantees about how the attitudes of everyday citizens impact the process. Looking to the past reminds us that a critical part of arms control is the case made in public to sell negotiations and agreements to allies, legislators, and voters.
Author: Susan Colbourn is associate director of the Program in American Grand Strategy at Duke University. A diplomatic and international historian, she specializes in European security, the politics of nuclear weapons, and the history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). She is the author of Euromissiles: The Nuclear Weapons That Nearly Destroyed NATO, published by Cornell University Press in 2022.
This paper is part of HCSS programme on Strategic Stability: Deterrence and Arm Control.
The Strategic Stability: Deterrence and Arm Control paper series is edited by Paul van Hooft and Tim Sweijs.