When the US Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, it was a surprise only for those who had not been following arms control developments in recent years. By century’s end, the entire arms control regime we inherited from the Cold War came under severe pressure. One by one, practically all its components began to crack.

For six years the Russian Duma refused to ratify the START II Treaty. It will not ratify the new version of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which Russia violated even before the adaptation document was formally signed. And during the Kosovo war NATO refused to let Russian inspectors verify the forces concentrated against Yugoslavia. Chemical and biological agreements are not being implemented. The Open Sky Treaty has been left hanging. India and Pakistan last year openly challenged the regime established by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Clinton administration plans to announce in June an American missile-defense plan, which would be in flagrant violation of the ABM Treaty. This announcement, coming on the eve of the Presidential elections in Russia, will probably lead to the immediate withdrawal of Moscow from the START I treaty. Right at the beginning of the 21st century the entire arms control regime might collapse.

The current crisis of arms control is explained in part by the widespread perception that arms control lost its importance with the end of the Cold War. The dominant view has been that international stability is endangered by the new threats: drugs, terrorism, ethnic conflicts, and “rogue states” (like North Korea, Iran, or Iraq) that want access to weapons of mass destruction. But this assessment is misguided. The new threats, however important, have not replaced traditional challenges to international security. The collapse of the rigid discipline of the bipolar system, which maintained strategic stability during the Cold War, has not made it easier to maintain the balance of power. The old security mechanism is crumbling, but no new system to ensure peace and stability has yet been created.

The old power balance was based on the principle of Soviet-United States parity. Through an elaborate negotiating process, the two superpowers agreed on equal numbers in the main classes of nuclear and conventional weapons. The three other official nuclear powers were allowed to have 2 percent of the world total, and the rest of the world was prohibited from having access to nuclear weapons or sophisticated conventional arms. Different rules of the game for different players at each level of the international hierarchy ensured the Cold War stability.

This old framework is now being challenged at all levels. India and Pakistan have refused to accept the rules for “the rest of the world,” and others may try to follow their example. And China is contemplating how to support its new economic capabilities with a corresponding military instruments. The asymmetry in American-Russian relations makes Washington much less willing to accept military parity with a weakened Moscow.

The Cold War arms control regime unraveled for two main reasons. First, the collapse of the bipolar structure of international relations undermined the principle of parity. Binary calculations do not work in the new system, which has a much more complicated configuration. China, France, Great Britain, and a few others are silent partners of the United States and Russia in the ABM Treaty modification negotiations. But no successful multilateral arms control deals were negotiated before the Cold War. The Washington Naval Treaty was no great success: it resulted in Pearl Harbor. And the multilateral arrangements that were negotiated in the bilateral system—the Nonproliferation, Chemical Weapons, and Biological Weapons Treaties—were about the complete prohibition of a certain class of weapons, and turned out to be difficult to implement and verify.

A second problem is the so-called revolution in military affairs, which is now official Pentagon doctrine. The application of new information technologies to combat will, it is said, establish total battlefield awareness. Thus it will be possible to find, track, and destroy with conventional long range munitions any target anywhere in the world.

Naturally, things will not happen quite that way. But precision guidance effectiveness instead of the number of weapon platforms is already becoming the decisive combat factor. JSTARs and JDAMs, laser guidance and GPS were much more important during the war in Kosovo than the number of tanks and aircraft.

It turned out that the CFE Treaty didn’t prevent a war in Europe, not only because it limits only some types of military equipment, but also because new long range weapons make territorial limitations for their deployment much less meaningful. These technological changes make “bean counting” (numbers of missiles, warheads, tanks, aircraft, etc.) much less important, because this traditional method of arms control does not include any limitations on the eyes and the brains of the military systems. In contemporary Pentagon slang, the key word now is C4SRI: command, control, communications, computers, surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence. The only arms control agreement that partially covered information collecting and processing capabilities is the ABM treaty, which limits the deployment and the size of ground based radars. And it is now under attack from the United States. Any new American missile defense scheme will deploy space-based sensors, whose capabilities are impossible to limit. Thus there will be no way to verify the hardware and the software of the future battle management system. That makes the restrictions on the number of ballistic missile defense (BMD) interceptors much less important, because if ten years from now the United States has a mature BMD battle management system it will be possible to quickly add many hundreds of additional interceptors to create “thick” territorial defenses.

This battle management system is not going to be limited to only BMD aspects. The Pentagon’s revolution in military affairs is supposed to integrate all components of combat power into a system that provides the United States—according to Secretary of Defense William Cohen’s 1999 Annual Report to the President and the Congress—with the capability to “maintain military superiority over current and potential rivals,” including Russia and China. The Pentagon wants “full spectrum dominance,” because “such a capability is the sine qua non of a superpower.” Naturally, the United States is not enthusiastic about giving up unilateral advantages in the new military technologies, which nobody else is able to match. Of course, the goal of absolute invulnerability, or, as Cohen put it, “freedom to attack and freedom from attack,” is incompatible with arms control at all.

The great danger looming over the horizon, then, is the failure to fundamentally modernize the arms control regime to regulate the power relations between the key players in the international arena. The main threat to arms control is represented not by minor nations, which have been labeled as “rogue states,” but by the United States, which is, according to the Pentagon “the world’s only superpower today and is expected to remain so through at least 2015.” Russia, China, India, and other major powers will respond to this challenge by greater reliance on nuclear weapons.

Because of changes in the balance of power and in technology, the old rules of the game have collapsed. If we fail to recognize this danger, we will not be able in the next century to preserve the relevant components of the old arms control regime and build a new mechanism for multilateral security.