The history of arms control agreements is the history of violations. States sign agreements when they must, but break them when they wish. Secret violations are especially hard to monitor in dictatorships and closed societies.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, Weimar Germany (a democracy) secretly built and tested arms in the Soviet Union (a dictatorship), which was a violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Classically educated Germans might have justified this behavior with the example of Athens. Defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), Athens agreed to tear down its walls and fortifications and to limit its 200+ ship navy to a mere 12 ships. Flute girls accompanied the destruction of the walls and the fleet was duly handed over to Sparta. But 9 years later the Athenians joined Sparta’s enemies and soon had a fleet of 40 ships (later to grow) and rebuilt most of their walls.
But treaty violations are hardly limited to those imposed on the defeated by the victors. Arms control agreements negotiated among equals in peacetime have all suffered violations and cheating. Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union for example, all bent or broke the limitations on shipbuilding of the 1930 or 1936 London Naval Treaties. More recently, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviets engaged in numerous violations or probable violations of arms control agreements ranging from biological and chemical to nuclear weapons and anti-ballistic missiles.
Chemical weapons have not gone away, in spite of the Geneva Protocol of 1925. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a treaty signatory, used them in its war against Iran beginning in 1983 and against its own Kurdish population in the Halabja massacre of 1988. More recently, the weapons have been used in the Syrian civil war. In 2013, Syria admitted to having mustard gas and other banned chemical weapons, also in violation of Geneva, of which it was a signatory. The U.S. and Russia made a deal with the Syrian government to destroy those weapons, but U.S. intelligence believes that the Syrians concealed some from international inspectors. It appears that ISIS has now used mustard gas against Kurdish troops in Iraq, and some think the gas came from Syria’s caches.
Turning to the most terrible weapon of all, in 1970 a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty came into effect. Virtually all of the world’s states have signed the treaty except for South Sudan, India, Israel, and Pakistan. India and Pakistan are now admitted nuclear states and Israel is universally thought to be one although it does not admit to that status.
Several signatories have nonetheless tried to develop nuclear weapons, including Iraq under Saddam Hussein (until the Israelis destroyed his nuclear reactor under construction in 1981) and Libya under Gadaffi (until he agreed to give up his weapons of mass destruction program in 2003). And then there is North Korea.
In spite of decades of western negotiations, bribes, and threats, North Korea has violated the treaty with impunity. North Korea first signed (1985), then violated (first accused by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1993), and ultimately withdrew from the treaty (2003). It has developed and tested nuclear weapons over many years—in short, it has become a nuclear power. In May of this year, North Korea claimed to be able to miniaturize nuclear weapons, a major step toward building nuclear missiles; the U.S. government received the claim with skepticism.
North Korea is also a proliferating nuclear power. The North Koreans have sold (non-nuclear) ballistic missiles to Vietnam and a series of countries from Libya and Egypt to Iran and Pakistan. They also helped Syria build a clandestine nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons (destroyed by Israel in 2007). For over a decade now journalists from a variety of countries have published reports claiming that North Korea and Iran are collaborating on nuclear weapons, specifically on helping Iran develop a nuclear warhead. The U.S. government has never confirmed the reports, however.
Autarchic, communistic, authoritarian, and militaristic, North Korea is a garrison state that behaves like a pirate. The regime seems to have no hesitation about breaking agreements, being cut off from the world economy (to say nothing of suffering obloquy) in return for becoming a nuclear power.
And what of Iran? Iran is widely thought to be in the process of developing nuclear weapons and the U.N. Security Council has declared it to be in noncompliance with its NPT obligations. Unlike North Korea, Iran wants to be back in the world economy after sanctions—and given the alacrity with which many states have reopened talks, the world is eager to have it back. Iran’s potential business partners have good reason to wink and nod at any treaty violations. Given the weakness of the proposed treaty’s verification regime, violations would not be difficult to put into effect. Will Iran stand by its promises in the proposed non-proliferation deal?
The long history of evasions, transgressions, and infringement of arms control treaties does not encourage optimism.