Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control
By Michael Krepon
Stanford University Press, 2021, 640 pp.
Arms Control for the Third Nuclear Age: Between Disarmament and Armageddon
By David A. Cooper
Georgetown University Press, 2021, 248 pp.
Gottemoeller’s lucid, candid, and engaging memoir of her role in getting the Russians to agree to the 2011 New START treaty—and persuading the U.S. Senate to ratify it—is an encomium to the hard slog of diplomacy. Her account demonstrates the importance of having a strong negotiating team with good morale, allowing technical experts time to work on the details, producing agreement texts that are both clear and mean the same thing in multiple languages, forging a working relationship with interlocutors (even when this requires some performative losses of temper), dealing with unrealistic demands from bosses in Washington and dissuading them from imposing unrealistic agendas, and creating public support for an agreement to keep pressure on the Senate to ratify it. Unsurprisingly, she reports that both she and her Russian counterpart had to be treated for high blood pressure when they returned home for a Christmas break. And she also notes that because New START did not make strides toward the abolition of nuclear weapons, it got only lukewarm support from advocates of disarmament. She hoped the agreement would be followed by more such deals, but her book is a reminder of how hard it was to get even this far.
Her message is similar to the one that emerges from Krepon’s comprehensive and thoroughly researched history of U.S. nuclear arms control policy. Krepon opens with the early efforts to control the new technology, which began soon after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan. In the 1950s, a dialogue was started between the superpowers, leading to breakthrough agreements in the 1960s, including the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and setting the stage for the first strategic arms agreements of the 1970s. Then the enterprise stalled, until U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev revived it. Krepon gives U.S. President George H. W. Bush high marks for his efforts; during the first term of his successor, Bill Clinton, arms control was as good as it has ever been. More recently, a low point was reached under U.S. President Donald Trump. This is essentially a political and bureaucratic history, enlivened by generous portraits of the key players. Krepon’s refreshingly realist message is that the world is stuck in the nuclear age: the idea of abolishing nuclear weapons and the notion of finding war-winning strategies for their use are both forms of escapism. Restraints on the numbers and compositions of the world’s nuclear arsenals are possible, but they would require tough negotiations by the United States, not only with other countries but also with skeptical parts of the executive branch and Congress. As Krepon shows, this situation can produce perverse outcomes, as Congress funds defense programs either to buy off the military or to serve as “bargaining chips” to be used to persuade the other side to relinquish something in return (presumably their own bargaining chips).
Cooper’s valuable guide to the theory and practice of arms control does not offer much hope for a rosier future. He points to the “complex, volatile and adversarial” state of world politics, the need to think trilaterally rather than bilaterally now that China has become a key player, and a loss of understanding about what arms control is for and how it can be achieved. When it comes to negotiations, he fully appreciates the importance of process but also urges policymakers to think clearly about substance. He explores deterrence theory and the concept of strategic stability and writes about the need for active weapons programs to encourage other parties to offer concessions. The benefits of arms control, in terms of reassurance, predictability, and opportunities for dialogue, are often described as “modest but useful.” Success requires not only considerable effort but also a favorable geopolitical context.