In the 1960s, arms control emerged as a major issue in international politics.  The world had come perilously close to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the search for ways to avoid another brush with Armageddon was on.  For instance, the hotline between the White House and the Kremlin dates from this period.  But perhaps the most significant change in atmosphere was a consequence of the idea that mutually agreed arms reductions would benefit all sides.

Arms control developed into an enormous enterprise.  Soon there were many treaties and agreements, an elaborate diplomatic, military, and governmental infrastructure, a large number of committed NGOs, and the deployment of considerable intellectual capital.  Arms-control proposals that the superpowers, and others, would at least talk about appeared with great rapidity, supporting organizations and structures were established, and inspection procedures developed and implemented.  Of course, cynics never failed to note that the effort spent on figuring out how to circumvent, or even undermine, arms control was at least equal to the effort to develop and enforce it. Nonetheless, arms control was a great success, at least measured in its own terms.

But by the turn of the millennium the Cold War was over, and commentators were proclaiming the death of arms control.  Some hard-won agreements, like the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) Treaty became meaningless, and simply fell by the wayside.  Others, like the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), were still seen as important, but were burdened with doubts, as states party either ignored their treaty obligations or carried them out half-heartedly. Yet arms control is a legacy that may still be valuable to us, and may even be adapted to assist us in addressing problems not even dreamed of when it began.

The end of the Cold War brought 9/11, and with it the understanding that we are all vulnerable to terrorism. Can arms control do much in the face of politically-motivated violence against non-combatants and their property carried out by non-state actors?  Because it began as restrictions on governments and their militaries, arms control would seem unable to offer much protection against the activities of shadowy organizations organized into secret cells.

But, in the realm of Weapons of Mass Destruction, there are three continuing arms control agreements that might help, providing, of course, that there were adequately retooled and refocused.  The NPT, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) are all relevant to reducing the threat that terrorists will use these terrible weapons.  In the last few years, there has been some discussion and speculation about how these agreements apply, and whether they can be adapted to protect against terror. Most of my thoughts on this subject were developed at a recent Workshop in Lancaster, UK, on the subject of Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction.

All three of the BWC, CWC, and NPT are administered by respected international agencies with competent professional staff.  They contain clear requirements for storage, reporting, and usage. Their provisions embody extensive knowledge about what is weaponizable and how such weapons might be delivered.  But challenges of adapting the three agreements to protection against terrorism are quite different.

At one extreme is the BWC, which has the weakest central agency and no verification provisions whatsoever.  (Besides the usual intrusion argument, inspections for biological weapons are seen as unlikely to be successful because evidence is so easy to destroy.)  But the world might be increasingly willing to strengthen the BWC to deal with substate groups at the expense of a stronger organization and some inspection rights.  Nonetheless, adapting the BWC poses some problems that will be extremely difficult to resolve, problems rooted in the technology itself.

The CWC has a stronger central agency staffed with professionals who have the right, and the ability, to carry out inspections.  The challenge of adapting the CWC to protect against terrorism seems to lie mainly in the scale of the inspections; the CWC is designed to detect military quantities of chemical weapons, whereas terrorists’ ends are generally served by much smaller amounts.  Searching for “tiny” quantities of banned materials again raises the issue of intrusiveness.

Of the three agreements, the NPT is probably easiest to adapt to address terrorism.  In fact, the IAEA, the enforcement agency for the NPT, is already doing a great deal toward that end.  Its material balance accounting tests against the diversion of nuclear materials make it difficult to accumulate fissionable substances, at least from declared facilities. This effectiveness has been achieved through the IAEA’s mastery of its technology, developed over the years, and partly because of the relative paucity of nuclear installations in the world (relative to, say, chemical plants).  Of course, there is more that the IAEA might do, but basic physical facts about radioactivity seem to give it a leg up.

The special features of the NPT account for its greater potential, but are also linked to some specific problems that the IAEA must face. First, participation by declared nuclear powers in the NPT is essentially voluntary; smaller countries usually act on advice from the IAEA that larger countries would regard as intrusive.  Another problem is money.  The IAEA has a remarkable record of doing more with less, but extending its mandate even further must surely hasten the inevitable financial crisis.

In conclusion, arms control agreements have some potential to offer protection against terrorism.  They have some remaining utility for their original purposes, so it is problematic whether retooling them, as would be necessary to a greater or lesser degree, would be worth the effort.  But for some specific cases they are already doing a good job, and we should be thinking about how to expand and develop them.

Interested readers can find an fuller account of the workshop in Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Responding to the Challenge, Ian Bellany, ed., Routledge Global Security Series, Oxford, 2007

Marc Kilgour is a Professor of Mathematics at Wilfrid Laurier University, Adjunct Professor of Systems Engineering at the University of Waterloo and Research Director of Conflict Analysis as well as a founding member of at the LCMSDS