David Hoffman tapped a thoughtful piece, “Is Nuclear Arms Control Dead?” that appears on Foreign Policy’s website. Nuclear arms control has been declared dead on many occasions, including when the Soviet Union broke a nearly three-year-long moratorium on atmospheric tests in 1961, when it invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and when the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was handed over as booty to a boarding party of ideologues accompanying the incoming Reagan administration. Heck, nuclear arms control died several times in first Reagan Administration alone, when the President endorsed one-sided negotiating proposals to reduce strategic arms and to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear forces. More nails were then driven into the coffin with the unveiling of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Some of my favorite premature obituaries of arms control can be found in an earlier post, Death and Resurrection (12/17/09).

This business of arms control just won’t go away. It gets banished for a time inside the cupboard, but still finds its way to the dining room table. The reason is fairly straightforward: Presidents aren’t doing their job properly if they don’t reduce nuclear dangers. When those dangers flare, arms control makes a comeback.

Arms control can take many forms, and the form that arms controllers like best is treaties. Treaties are particularly hard to do when (a) Democratic Presidents negotiate them and seek the Senate’s consent to ratification; (b) partisanship prevails on Capitol Hill and Republicans equate treaties with national enfeeblement; (c) more than 50 states are involved in the negotiations; and (d) the entry-into-force provision plays out like a James Bond movie with the UN Secretary General playing the role of 007.

For reasons that remain puzzling to me, the climate-change community seeks to emulate – nay, pursue even more difficult feats than – the arms control community. The NPT, BWC, and CWC were simple matters compared to entry into force of the Kyoto Treaty or its hoped-for replacement. If I knew the first thing about the Doha Round, I’d probably throw this into the mix, as well.

When international politics, domestic partisanship and procedure trap treaties, substance becomes more important than form. As readers of these posts know, I am partial to codes of conduct and norm-building exercises, especially when the deck is stacked against treaties. Treaties establish or strengthen norms in the most formal way, but when you don’t own a tuxedo, a white tie and tails, a suit or sports jacket will have to do. Why wait for treaties when unilateral action and reciprocal steps among the biggest stakeholders do not harm and could advance national security? This logic applies to climate change as much as to arms control.

Rather than being dead, nuclear arms control turns out to be alive and well, at least compared to efforts to reverse climate change. Both pursuits are costly at the outset. Nuclear arms control and reduction treaties are accompanied with pricey “safeguards” provided to ease Congressional concerns. Environmental protection is also very costly at the outset – at least until your population is overcome with respiratory disease and cancer, and your cities, farmlands and coasts are hammered by extreme weather. Then, environmental protection, like nuclear arms control, seems like a reasonable global insurance policy.