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Whither Nuclear-Arms Control?

The purpose of nuclear-arms control is obvious, but the means of achieving it have become more complicated than ever. What worked in the past may not work in the present, and tactics to rein in one country could prove disastrous if pursued with others.

LOS ANGELES – Is nuclear-arms control unraveling? The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) has collapsed, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is teetering, and North Korea has continued to expand its nuclear and ballistic-missile arsenal. Worse, it is unclear whether the United States will stick with the New START Treaty when it expires in 2021. That agreement limits (at 3,000) the number of strategic weapons Russia and the US have pointed at each other.

Fortunately, history offers some solace. During and after the Cold War, periods of arms-control breakdown were typically followed by phases of reconstruction. But reversing course is never easy. When it comes to bringing Russia, Iran, and North Korea into compliance, past experience shows that there are limits to what can be accomplished by leveraging alliances or pursuing military action. The remaining options are economic sanctions – which are effective only up to a point – and a further arms buildup, to induce renewed negotiations.

To be sure, alliances historically have played an important role in nuclear nonproliferation. In Europe, the US-NATO nuclear umbrella prevented the bomb from spreading beyond Britain and France. When US intelligence agencies learned in the 1970s and 1980s that South Korea and Taiwan had secret nuclear-weapons programs, America threatened to withdraw its military and economic support, and the programs eventually were shut down.

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