International Arms Control - Why should Chinese, Russians and Americans care?

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Katja Kruse's picture

International Arms Control - Why should Chinese, Russians and Americans care?

As the conflict in Syria escalated rapidly into civil war – fueled by arms both legally sold and illegally procured – 193 UN member states found themselves faced with an acid test on the issue and failed.

A legally-binding arms control treaty to regulate the $60 billion global business of arms trading that had worked its way through United Nations negotiating channels for three years came up at the fast-approaching deadline of July 27 of the UN global conference in New York. Despite several years of preparations and nearly a decade of advocacy campaigns, there remained a lack of consensus on the content, scope and implementation of the treaty. However, it did not come as a surprise that the usual suspects China, Russia and the US – the three world leading arms exporters – were among the countries that raised objections, particularly over the proposed inclusion of small arms, ammunition and human rights criteria. Thus, in the end China and Russia joined the USA in objecting to a final version and dealt the final blow to an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

While arms export policy may not have been a topic of public conversation before, Syria’s civil war and the mass murder in Aurora, Colorado brought guns control into international spotlight. Despite the public outcry about irresponsible arms sales and efforts of the international community to stem the flow of arms trade to unstable and conflict-prone areas around the world the USA, Russia and China opted for a delay. This decision begs an important question: What is wrong with arms control?

 Many experts and politicians opposed to arms control and the ATT suggest that arms control is first and foremost, a national sovereignty issue and that it is dangerous to limit military capabilities. In the ATT ratification debate in the U.S., NRA vice president LaPierre, for instance, led the push to defeat the treaty by denouncing the potential treaty “an offense to any American who has ever breathed our free air1.” Only a few days later, Republican presidential Romney echoed such sentiments at a town hall meeting: “Turning to the United Nations to tell us how to raise our kids, or whether we can have the Second Amendment rights that our Constitution gave us, I mean that is the wrong way to go, right? Do not cede sovereignty. (…) I’m not willing to give American sovereignty in any way, shape or form to the United Nations (…)2.”

 Others are not generally opposed to arms control but are skeptical about its practicality and feasibility today. Despite political leanings or objectives, the core of these arguments is that arms control is outdated and overhyped: a worthless relic of former times. Like other critical voices in China and Russia former U.S. senator Kyl3 spearheaded the attacks against international arms control by citing failures of arms control throughout history, starting with attempts by the Catholic Church to ban the crossbow in 1139, to highlight the fallacy of arms control. Following this line of argument, any arms control – whether on small weapons, cluster bombs or crossbows – invariably prevents us from defending ourselves and thus, endangers our security.

 Other arms control opponents claim that arms control is not inherently dangerous, but that it achieves too little, and that it hinders efforts of disarmaments. The argument in this context suggests that arms control is not a “fallacy” but a “folly”. It is stated that international arms control attempts such as the treaties banning indiscriminate use of anti-personnel mines and cluster bombs offer a false sense of achievement: Although negotiations on both treaties were successfully concluded, exports of Spanish cluster bombs to a questionable recipient such as Libya demonstrate that actually no tangible progress was made toward disarmament. In this view, pursuing stricter controls of arms in the context of an ATT distracts from the more important task of eliminating them.

These arguments raise the thorny: If arms control is so problematic and impractical, then what is the point of it? One answer, which links the preceding three objections, is the argument that arms control represents what Williams calls a “fetish”4. In other words “something nations do for no objective reason”. In this view, the fetish of arms control completely fails to sustain international security, given the international rise of terrorism and armed conflict.

The shortcoming of the “national sovereignty” argument is that it is simply unfounded. The treaty refers to the international trade of conventional arms, which includes the buying, selling and transferring outside national borders, not within national borders.  In fact, it is not a dastardly UN attack on the Second Amendment as America’s gun lobby tried to depict it. In reality it is very pragmatic. It does neither question the right of states to acquire the military equipment of self-defense, nor does it touch on their right to decide laws ruling the ownership and transfer of arms within their own borders.

The “fallacy” argument also misses the mark. It misinterprets the goals of arms control. Even strongest supporters of arms control do not claim that the ATT will solve everything. Alone, arms control can neither stop armed conflict, nor the reasons which led to it in the first place or deliver disarmament. Whether or not a government and its society invests in arms or keeps the ones it has is, fundamentally, a matter of political will and economic resources.  Thus, the scope of the “fallacy” argument is too restricted and implies that all weapons should be isolated from the realities of economic and political constraints.

The weakness of the “folly” argument is linked to the presumption that arms control undermines disarmament as well as the other way around. Yet it is too unidimensional to assume this will always, or even frequently, be the case. As discussed below, arms control can support disarmament by sustaining peace, stability, development and cooperation and thus, building a necessary normative ground for broader arms reductions.

 However, the question remains to which extent arms control can be seen as a “fetish”. If arms control is really an outdated and overhyped habit, then its benefits are no longer relevant or result in diminishing returns. In this context, the crude question raises: Then why should Americans, Russians and Chinese even care about international arms control? Answering this question requires showing in greater detail the enduring positive effects of arms control.

The problem shrouding the concept of arms control is not arms control itself, but the definition of its goals and benefits, which are most often discussed in military terms such as strategic stability and numerical parity. In military terms the goal of arms control is to improve stability, decrease the risk of war and reduce defense costs. However, arms control cannot simply be put into the “military” box. It combines a complex array of benefits, not only normative, but also material and political ones, which are as enduring and relevant today as in former times.

Arms control offers in terms of political benefits an increased level of transparency and accountability through data sharing and information where, otherwise, none would be available. As the USA wants to be seen as a normative actor obliged to openness and democratic practice this would add to its image. In terms of economic benefits an ATT would simplify the regulatory and costly burden of arms manufacturers by harmonizing a bunch of different national rules with one international code. It could make it easier for the arms industry to sign supply contracts with countries having relatively low costs and a skilled workforce.An ATT could help to reduce the instability created by weapons-fueled conflicts, securing reliable returns from overseas investment. China and its increasing investments in Africa could be one potential winner of this economic benefit. Last but not least, an ATT would reduce the flow of weapons to the most vulnerable and ill-governed countries and build the normative ground for international stability, security and human rights.

Arms control is not a panacea. It will not stop Syria’s civil war, nor will it solve all the security issues that gave rise to illicit and irresponsible arms trade in the first place. But this does not mean that arms control is useless. If anything the opposite is true. Over the past decades, arms control has contributed to increase transparency and accountability, strengthen international norms such as human rights and development, raise economic benefits by harmonizing national arms control policies and promote international security through the rule of law. Thus, there are a number of reasons why Chinese, Russians and Americans should care about international arms control. Therefore, it is curious why they did not grab the golden ring: an international Arms Trade Treaty that would have bolstered the role of international arms control as a normative practice and its enduring utility to increase accountability and cooperation. If there is any problem with arms control, it is due to the lack of political commitment.

  1. Hartung, W. (2012): Will the NRA kill a global arms trade treaty? [Online] Reuters. Available from: [Accessed 31/07/12].
  2. Johnson, T. (2012): Fox News and the NRA write the script for Romney on U.N. Arms Trade Treaty. [Online] Media Matters For America. Available from: [Accessed 20/07/12].
  3. Schell, J. (2000): The Folly of Arms Control. In: Foreign Affairs. Vol.79, no. 5, p. 32.
  4. Williams, H. (2011): Follies, Fallacies, and Fetishes. The crisis of arms control. In: Nuclear Notes, Vol. 2, and p. 41.
  5. The Economist (2012): A dirty business. [Online] The Economist. Available from:  [Accessed 31/07/12].