What Is Arms Control?

President Kennedy signing paper in the White House
President Kennedy signed the Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

Hulton Deutsch / Contributor / Getty Images

Arms control is when a country or countries restrict the development, production, stockpiling, proliferation, distribution or usage of weapons. Arms control may refer to small arms, conventional weapons or weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and is usually associated with bilateral or multilateral treaties and agreements.


Arms control agreements such as the multilateral Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Strategic and Tactical Arms Reduction Treaty (START) between the US and the Russians are instruments that have contributed to keeping the world safe from nuclear war since the end of World War II.

How Arms Control Works

Governments agree to not produce or stop producing a type of weapon or reduce existing arsenals of weapons and sign a treaty, convention or other agreement. When the Soviet Union broke up, many of the former Soviet satellites like Kazakhstan and Belarus agreed to international conventions and gave up their weapons of mass destruction.

In order to ensure compliance with the arms control agreement, there are normally on-site inspections, verifications by satellite, and/or overflights by airplanes. Inspection and verification may be performed by an independent multilateral body such as the International Atomic Energy Agency or by treaty parties. International organizations will often agree to assist countries with destroying and transporting WMDs.


In the United States, the State Department is responsible for negotiating treaties and agreements related to arms control. There used to be a semi-autonomous agency called the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) which was subordinate to the State Department. The Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security is responsible for arms control policy and serves as Senior Adviser to the President and the Secretary of State for Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament.

Important Treaties in Recent History

  • Antiballistic Missile Treaty: The ABM Treaty is a bilateral treaty signed by the US and the Soviet Union in 1972. The purpose of the treaty was to limit the use of anti-ballistic missiles to counter nuclear weapons in order to ensure nuclear deterrence. Basically, the idea was to limit defensive weapons so neither side would feel compelled to build more offensive weapons.
  • Chemical Weapons Convention: The CWC is a multilateral agreement signed by 175 states as Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. Private sector producers of chemicals are subject to CWC compliance.
  • Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: The CTBT is an international treaty banning the explosion of nuclear devices. President Clinton signed the CTBT in 1996 but the Senate failed to ratify the treaty. President Obama has pledged to gain ratification.
  • Conventional Forces [in] Europe Treaty: In the early 1990s as relations between the former Soviet Union and NATO improved, the CFE treaty was implemented to reduce the overall level of conventional military forces in Europe. Europe was classified as the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains in Russia.
  • Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: The NPT Treaty was established to halt nuclear proliferation. The basis of the treaty is that the five main nuclear powers—United States, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, France, and China—agree not to transfer nuclear devices to non-nuclear states. Non-nuclear states agree not to develop nuclear weapons programs. Israel, India, and Pakistan are not signatories to the treaty. North Korea withdrew from the treaty. Iran is a signatory but is believed to be in violation of the NPT.
  • Strategic Arms Limitation Talks: Beginning in 1969, there were two sets of bilateral talks between the US and the Soviets regarding nuclear weapons, SALT I and SALT II. These "working agreements" are historic as they reflect the first significant attempt to slow the nuclear arms race.
  • Strategic and Tactical Arms Reduction Treaty: The US and the Soviet Union signed this follow-on treaty to SALT II in 1991 after 10 years of negotiations. This treaty represents the largest arms reduction in history and is the basis of US-Russian arms control today.
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Kolodkin, Barry. "What Is Arms Control?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-arms-control-3310297. Kolodkin, Barry. (2021, February 16). What Is Arms Control? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-arms-control-3310297 Kolodkin, Barry. "What Is Arms Control?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-arms-control-3310297 (accessed June 6, 2023).