The End of Arms Control?
The most important use of arms control is as a means of achieving strategic stability, which in turn is a way of dealing with the terrifying reality that in the time it takes to read this essay, the United States and the Russian Federation can destroy one another as functioning societies. Neither is likely to do so because each side maintains forces that could survive a first strike and inflict devastating retaliation. As a result, nuclear war has become irrational. Because neither side can be certain of controlling escalation (especially once the nuclear threshold is crossed), conventional war between nuclear states is also–or at least should be–too risky to contemplate. This reality, called mutual assured destruction, is a frightening and unsatisfactory concept. Many experts have sought a way to move beyond it. They have not found one because mutual assured destruction is not a policy to be embraced or rejected but a fact to be accepted and managed. In a relationship characterized by the reciprocal ability to inflict devastation, Russia and the United States have historically found the concept of strategic stability to be helpful and perhaps even central to preventing war. By the end of the Cold War, analysts in both the Soviet Union and the United States had a similar understanding of the basic premises of strategic stability and of the importance of those principles in avoiding catastrophe.