Share | Contact Us | NPEC Email Alerts |
Missiles, Defenses, and Space The Nonproliferation Regime Nuclear Power Economics Nuclear Abolition & The Next Arms Race


Follow @NuclearPolicy to be the first in on NPEC's latest research

More of NPEC’s Work
A chronological listing by resource:

Articles | Occasional Papers & Monographs | Interviews | Official Docs & Letters | Op-Eds & Blogs | Press Releases | Presentations | Audio & Video | Testimony & Transcripts | Translations | Wargame Reports
HOME > TOPICS > Nuclear Abolition & The Next Arms Race      
Making Arms Control Competitive Again

Last week, the United States and Russia agreed to extend New START for another five years. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States will build on the five-year extension to devise an arms control treaty that addresses all of America’s and Russia’s nuclear weapons as well as, “the dangers from China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenals.” The question is how.

We get an answer in the attached study, “Arms Control Among Rivals,” that John Maurer of the US Air Force’s Air University just completed for NPEC. In it, he makes the case for "competitive arms control." Such diplomacy follows three basic rules. 

First, Washington should avoid limiting military technologies that it has a decisive advantage in. Second, the United States should ensure equal limits in areas where it can compete effectively but cannot predominate. Finally, Washington should be willing to allow adversaries to enjoy military advantage in categories of weapons that the United States does not wish to compete in.

Maurer explains how these principals have been exercised in the past and how they should be exercised by American diplomats today. His analysis is must reading not only for those who are uncomfortable striking diplomatic deals, but for those who are all too eager to do so.



Feb 10, 2021
AUTHOR: John Maurer
Maurer NPEC Future Arms Control Paper (PDF) 416.29 KB

Arms Control Among Rivals

John Maurer


After decades of small wars and counterinsurgency, the United States is refocusing on great power rivalry with China and Russia.1  This rivalry has profound implications for all aspects of defense planning, especially arms control negotiations.2  Many analysts worry that renewed great power rivalry will mean the end of arms control as a tool of national security policy.3  These analysts are correct that changes in the international security environment will require significant deviation from the autopilot policies that guided American arms control policy for the last thirty years. Arms control in a world of great power rivalry will instead be competitive arms control. Great powers will use negotiations to promote their military advantages, the better to prevail over their rivals. If the United States does not wish to be left behind in this new world of competitive negotiation, then it must begin preparing to integrate arms limitation into its long-term strategy now.

In facing great power rivals, arms control can contribute to American security in three ways. First, the United States should avoid limiting weapons technologies where it enjoys decisive advantages, like missile defenses. Over the longer term, as adversaries diversify their own capabilities and catch up, limitation may become more desirable, but in the short term the United States gains little by trading away areas of strength. Second, the United States should focus on ensuring equal limitation of forces in which it can compete effectively with adversaries, but cannot predominate, like strategic nuclear forces. Over the longer term equal agreements will enhance the United States’ major and durable geopolitical advantages. Third, the United States should accept adversary advantages in categories of weapons in which the United States does not wish to compete, like theater nuclear weapons. In these categories, the United States has little to lose to conceding to adversary demands, especially if they are linked to adversary concessions in other more important areas.

To maximize advantages from the above three approaches over the longer term, American leaders will need to pursue three important tasks in the short term. The first is to compete vigorously with rivals in certain military-technical domains. Only a strong defense program will provide the leverage necessary to bring rivals to the negotiating table. The second is to integrate arms limitation negotiations into American strategy, along the lines described above. Finally, the United States must retain and expand its hard-won geopolitical advantages, especially its network of alliances and security partners throughout Eurasia. Arms control can support an effective long-term strategy, but it cannot substitute for it: even very successful negotiations will do little to promote American security if the fundamentals, such as alliance security, are allowed to crumble.


1. While the phrase “great power competition” may soon be replaced, geopolitical rivalry between the United States, China, and Russia will remain an enduring feature of international politics. On great power rivalry, see: “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,” Department of Defense, 19 January 2018,, and Elbridge A. Colby and A. Wess Mitchell, “The Age of Great-Power Competition: How the Trump Administration Refashioned American Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2020, On the language of great power rivalry, see: Zack Cooper, “Bad idea: ‘Great power competition’ terminology,” Defense360, 1 December 2020,, and Robert C. O’Brien, “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” White House, 5 January 2021,

2. Maggie Tennis and Strobe Talbott, “Jettisoning arms control endangers America’s edge in great-power politics,” Brookings, 26 July 2019,; John D. Maurer, “Post-INF great power arms control,” Real Clear Defense, 17 September 2019,; Christopher Ashley Ford, “The Politics of Arms Control: Getting Beyond Post-Cold War Pathologies and Finding Security in a Competitive Environment,” Remarks, International Institute of Strategic Studies, London, 11 February 2020,

3. Eugene Rumer, “A Farewell to Arms… Control,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 17 April 2018,; Greg Thielmann, “Are We Approaching the End of the Arms Control Era?” Remarks, Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA, 1 April 2019,; Linton F. Brooks, “The End of Arms Control?” Daedalus 149 (2), 2020, 84-100,; Ulrich Kühn, “Why Arms Control Is (Almost) Dead,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Europe, 5 March 2020,


To read the entire paper, click here.

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
1600 Wilson Blvd. | Suite 640 | Arlington, VA 22209 | phone: 571-970-3187 |