Nuclear Arms Control: Reflecting On The Past And Looking To The Future – A Geneva Security Debate

On 3 June 2024, we attended the Nuclear Arms Control debate at the Geneva Centre For Security Policy (GCSP). The discussion with former NATO Deputy Secretary-General Rose Gottemoeller was an insightful and thought-provoking debate on the way forward on arms control and non-proliferation in these challenging geopolitical times. 

Nuclear arms control refers to international efforts to regulate and limit the proliferation, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons. The primary goal of nuclear arms control is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, reduce the number of existing nuclear weapons, and minimise the risk of nuclear war. These efforts are often formalised through treaties, agreements, and international organisations.

Here are some key aspects and historical milestones of nuclear arms control:


Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - 1968

  • Objective: To prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
  • Components: Non-proliferation, disarmament, and the right to peacefully use nuclear technology.
  • Signatories: Nearly every country, with notable exceptions being India, Pakistan, and Israel.

Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I and II) - 1972 and 1979

  • Objective: To limit the number of strategic ballistic missile launchers.
  • Outcome: SALT I led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty), while SALT II, though signed, was never ratified by the U.S. Senate.

Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) - 1987

  • Objective: To eliminate ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5 500 km.
  • Outcome: Led to the destruction of 2 692 missiles by the U.S. and USSR.

Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) - 1991

  • Objective: To reduce and limit strategic offensive arms.
  • Outcome: Significant reductions in the number of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles.

Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) - 1996

  • Objective: To ban all nuclear explosions for both civilian and military purposes.
  • Status: Not yet in force due to the need for ratification by specific nuclear-capable countries, including the U.S., China, and India.

New START Treaty - 2010

  • Objective: To further reduce the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers.
  • Outcome: Extended limits on deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1 550.


  • Deterrence: The concept that possessing nuclear weapons prevents other countries from attacking due to the threat of mutual assured destruction (MAD).
  • Non-Proliferation: Efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to additional states.
  • Disarmament: The process of reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons.
  • Verification and Compliance: Mechanisms to ensure that countries adhere to treaties and agreements, often involving inspections and satellite monitoring.
  • Nuclear Security: Measures to prevent nuclear terrorism and the theft or sabotage of nuclear materials and facilities.
  • Regional Nuclear Issues: Specific concerns related to nuclear programmes in countries like North Korea and Iran.


  • International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): An international organisation that promotes the peaceful use of nuclear energy and aims to prevent its use for military purposes.
  • United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA): Works to promote nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.


  • Geopolitical Tensions: Rising tensions among major powers like the U.S., Russia, and China can complicate arms control efforts.
  • Technological Advances: Developments in missile defence systems, cyber warfare, and new delivery mechanisms (hypersonic missiles) pose new challenges.
  • Non-State Actors: The threat of nuclear terrorism by non-state actors requires robust security measures.
  • Modernisation Programmes: Efforts by nuclear-armed states to modernise their arsenals can undermine disarmament goals.

Overall, nuclear arms control remains a crucial element of international security, requiring ongoing diplomatic efforts, innovative solutions, and international cooperation to adapt to evolving challenges.

Image courtesy of Centre For Arms Control And Non-Proliferation