In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Arms Control

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Arms Control before World War I
  • Arms Control between the Two World Wars
  • Arms Control Since the Cold War
  • The Quest for Nuclear Zero

International Relations Arms Control
William Keylor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0001


In the history of warfare, periodic and usually unsuccessful efforts have been made to establish rules of war that would protect noncombatants, require humane treatment of prisoners of war, and in other ways restrict the behavior of warring parties. One category of such efforts to mitigate the consequences of warfare has been campaigns to impose either qualitative or quantitative limits on the weapons of war. These efforts have been prompted by three major considerations. The first is the conviction that certain types of weapons are intrinsically inhumane and should be banned altogether from warfare. The second is the belief that restricting armaments that individual states may possess is an effective means of reducing the likelihood of war. The third is the old assumption that since a “balance of power” among major states is the most effective guarantee of international security, the equality in military power that can be achieved through arms limitation agreements is conducive to world peace because it enhances each power’s sense of security. Sporadic attempts to impose limits to arms races have occurred throughout history. None has been successful until the advent of nuclear weapons during the Cold War and the prospect of mass destruction. Multilateral and bilateral negotiations produced a series of agreements that imposed restraints on the nuclear arms race as well as on biological weapons. With the end of the Cold War, an agreement was reached to place limits on the production of chemical weapons and to prevent the spread of nuclear weaponry and materials to states as well as to terrorist organizations. In recent years a movement has gained force to promote the radical reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons in the world.

General Overviews

The scholarship on arms control is enormous and ongoing. An excellent place to begin a study of the subject is to consult the Arms Control and Disarmament—Bibliography. Burns 1993 and Burns 2009 provide a comprehensive list of arms control agreements, secondary sources, and a definition of terms. US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency 1996 is a useful summary of all arms control agreements in modern history, with particular emphasis on those reached since the end of World War II. Goldblatt 1982 subjects past arms control agreements to a searching analysis. Thee 1977 and DeBenedetti 1980 are both critical of governments’ reluctance to enact meaningful arms control measures and credit nongovernmental peace groups with pressuring governments to act. The official website of the Arms Control Association is a gold mine of information about past and present efforts at limiting the arms race—conventional weapons as well as weapons of mass destruction. As an advocacy organization, it of course assumes that all efforts at arms control are to be supported.

  • Arms Control Association.

    An American nongovernmental organization devoted to the promotion of arms control. The site includes useful book reviews, news, and more, and tends to focus on contemporary issues rather than historical analyses.

  • Burns, Richard Dean. Arms Control and Disarmament—Bibliography.

    A lengthy bibliography of secondary sources dealing with arms control, which focuses on negotiations in which the United States participates.

  • Burns, Richard Dean, ed. Encyclopedia of Arms Control and Disarmament. 3 vols. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993.

    Full of entries dealing with all aspects of arms control from early centuries to the end of the Cold War. A scrupulously even-handed approach to the topic, presenting a variety of interpretations.

  • Burns, Richard Dean. The Evolution of Arms Control: From Antiquity to the Nuclear Age. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2009.

    The best general history of arms control since ancient times. Written clearly, without technical jargon, and with careful attention to the full range of arms control efforts over the centuries.

  • DeBenedetti, Charles. The Peace Reform in American History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

    A study of the role of nongovernmental organizations in the promotion of disarmament and arms control by the leading American scholar on that subject.

  • Goldblatt, Jozef. Agreements for Arms Control: A Critical Survey. London: Taylor and Francis, 1982.

    An in-depth analysis of arms control negotiations and treaties since the end of the 19th century. The author focuses on the flaws of most agreements and offers suggestions of how to improve the prospects of success for future ones.

  • Thee, Marek. “Arms Control: The Retreat from Disarmament, the Record to Date and the Search for Alternatives.” Journal of Peace Research 14.2 (1977): 95–114.

    DOI: 10.1177/002234337701400201

    Surveys the successes and failures of past arms control agreements and argues that for the process to be effective the old approaches must be jettisoned in favor of more imaginative ones.

  • US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Arms Control and Disarmament Agreements: Texts and Histories of the Negotiations. 6th ed. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1996.

    A thorough summary of all arms control agreements in modern history, compiled by specialists at the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Most useful for agreements since the end of World War II.

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