Arms control isn’t an end in itself


Current events—and a sidebar discussion at last week’s Breaking the Mold Workshop—put me in a . . . Star Trek frame of mind. A fellow participant wondered aloud why the United States should keep honoring arms-control accords with Russia when Russia is flagrantly in breach of them.

Good question.

Arms control is a tool for restraining the development or proliferation of certain classes of weaponry deemed particularly provocative, destabilizing, or cruel. Arms control has a long lineage, dating at least back to the papacy’s effort to ban the crossbow in medieval times. I have no beef with arms control in principle. Heck, in a past life I used to teach arms control and nonproliferation to impressionable young undergraduates down in Athens, Georgia, and gallivanted around the globe advising governments on how to crack down on gunrunning.

But arms control shouldn’t be an ideology. Arms control isn’t the answer to all questions at all times, any more than routine negotiations, economic sanctions, or war are always the answer. Think about it. A solemn agreement may not work. One or more parties may subvert it. It may work for awhile but outlive its usefulness. And so forth. It’s self-defeating to bind oneself to forego some capability when a competitor flouts its commitment to forego that capability. One-sided fealty to a treaty or convention distorts the balance of power—and increases the likelihood of war and defeat for the party that keeps its commitments.

Hence the Star Trek tie-in. Best I know—the sci-fi epic’s makers never explain how this state of affairs came about—some diplomatic genius in the Federation’s past thought it would be a good idea to ink an agreement foreswearing the development of a cloaking device that renders starships invisible to enemy sensors. Such a device grants a cloaked vessel a massive tactical advantage over a vessel not thus equipped. It can decline battle; it can hit and run, flitting in and out of battle; it can pound away from any angle with good prospects of evading Federation phaser or torpedo counterfire.

One of two things must have happened: either Federation diplomats unilaterally signed away stealth technology—and evidently the capacity to defeat it, judging from how Federation crews flounder when confronted with the technology—or the hostile Klingon and Romulan empires consented to a ban yet ignored their commitments and fielded cloaking devices anyway. Yet the Federation clings to its commitment. As a result Federation starships, superior to their peers in most respects, constantly get pummeled in encounters with rival starfleets.

In short, the Federation squandered its military edge through foolish diplomacy—and gave away Starfleet’s capacity to deter Klingon or Romulan aggression, hearten Federation member planets, and recruit new allies. Dumb. Evening the military balance is not a good thing when a freedom-loving society is trying to outface predatory neighbors. Abrogating a dead treaty is sometimes necessary, albeit distasteful.

Now, the original Enterprise crew found a solution: Kirk and Spock ran a ruse to get aboard a Romulan cruiser and steal a cloaking device. They even managed to mate it with systems on board the Enterprise. Problem solved? Hardly. By the time The Next Generation rolls around some decades later, it becomes glaringly obvious that Federation weapon scientists—probably at the behest of their political masters—have failed to follow up on the theft of cloaking technology, either to incorporate it into Federation spacecraft or to defeat enemies outfitted with it.

The worst part is the fatalism and even sanctimony Picard, Riker, and the NCC-1701-D crew display toward the ban on cloaking devices. Not only have they resigned themselves to a permanent enemy advantage, they seem appalled when it turns out Starfleet has been experimenting with cloaking technology on the sly—technology that not only renders a starship invisible but also lets it phase through solid matter. It turns out Commander Riker had taken part in such experiments in a previous assignment on board USS Pegasus. The writers portray Riker’s old skipper as eeeeevil for wanting to restore long-lost technological parity to Starfleet, or even leapfrog the foe. Riker is complicit and needs to atone for it.

Me, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Pegasus experiment, regardless of how much it violated Federation civil-military relations. It may have been wrong—but it represented an effort to correct a bigger wrong that political leaders should have corrected long before.

They say problems look like nails when you sport a hammer. This jest rightly warns against making military force the first resort in international controversies. But it’s possible to obsess over any implement of statecraft, making it an ideology. Economic sanctions are one. Americans have reflexively reached for the economic brickbat ever since the days when Sam Adams rallied boycotts against British goods in pre-revolutionary Boston. International law is another. Americans are smatterers in law, as Edmund Burke observed during our Revolution. We put our faith in agreements that codify our interests or principles—and find it hard to withdraw that faith when a covenant is overtaken by events. Reverence for agreements takes on inertia, in real life as in the fictional Star Trek universe.

Agreements are pieces of parchment, not sacred writ. What the signatories do is what infuses substance into them. A compact should command our allegiance so long as all parties honor it. It reverts to paper if a partner disregards its obligations—and it can and should be scrapped at that point. Let’s not be like feckless Federation diplomats.