Home News and Politics Unveiling the Shocking Lesson from the Washington Treaty: Brace Yourself for the Ultimate Tripolar Arms Showdown!

Unveiling the Shocking Lesson from the Washington Treaty: Brace Yourself for the Ultimate Tripolar Arms Showdown!

Unveiling the Shocking Lesson from the Washington Treaty: Brace Yourself for the Ultimate Tripolar Arms Showdown!

An Arms Control Breakthrough: The Lessons from the Washington Naval Treaty

The Biden administration’s pursuit of arms control with China

This week, the Joseph R. Biden administration met with Chinese representatives for an initial discussion on the future of strategic stability. The administration hopes that this meeting will serve as a first step in a larger dialogue on limiting nuclear arsenals. After years of struggle to engage China on nuclear issues, hopes now run higher that the United States and China might head off their escalating race to modernize and expand their nuclear forces.

American concerns and the need for arms control

American interest in arms control dialogue is understandable. As China and Russia modernize and expand their nuclear forces, the United States faces an increasingly dangerous world marked by two great power competitors. The recent Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States highlighted this challenge, writing, “Our nation will soon encounter a fundamentally different global setting than it has ever experienced: we will face a world where two nations possess nuclear arsenals on par with our own.” American leaders naturally hope to curtail this emerging challenge through negotiation. Yet the Congressional Commission predicts that while “the United States will continue to reduce risk with China and Russia when and where possible to enhance U.S. security … it will also need to prepare for a future in the 2027–2035 timeframe when formal arms control treaties are difficult to achieve or absent.”

The Washington Naval Treaty as an example

The commission’s skepticism about arms control’s near-term prospects is well founded, as balancing the competing demands of multiple great powers in a single negotiation is incredibly difficult. One important example of the promises and perils of multilateral arms control is the Washington Naval Treaty, which was ratified 100 years ago in August 1923. The treaty regulated strategic competition between Great Britain, Japan, and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. It is a hopeful example for future tripolar risk reduction.

Absence of favorable conditions in today’s relations

Unfortunately, the domestic and international political bases that enabled the Washington Treaty are absent in Chinese-Russian-U.S. relations today. Convinced that they can arm their way to security, Chinese and Russian leaders are simply not interested in serious arms limitation. As American strategists consider the future of competition with China and Russia, the main lesson from the Washington Treaty ought to be the importance of American power in creating the conditions for future arms control success. The congressional commission’s recommendations for strengthening American deterrence, including continuing nuclear modernization, strengthening the industrial base for future competition, and enhancing conventional deterrent forces, are thus also the best possible path toward robust risk reduction in the future.

The breakthrough of the Washington Naval Treaty

The Washington Naval Treaty resulted from an American diplomatic initiative, an invitation issued in 1921 by President Warren R. Harding to the world’s leading sea powers to attend an international conference in Washington to stop an emerging competition in naval armaments. Harding’s proposal stunned the other conference delegates and set the stage for negotiations. By presenting a detailed arms control proposal, Secretary of State Charles Evan Hughes gained the initiative and led to an agreement to curtail naval construction between Britain, Japan, and the United States.

The political roots of success

The success of the Washington Treaty was possible due to domestic political imperatives in Britain, Japan, and the United States. In the United States, influential voices emerged against naval buildup, led by Senator William Borah. In Britain, the political pressure to cut spending and avoid a costly arms race was applauded across the political spectrum. Japan saw cooperation with Britain and the United States as enhancing its power and security. These domestic political conditions set the stage for negotiations and the ultimate agreement.

Lessons for the present

In today’s world, the prospects for arms control are grim. The United States is engaged in a three-way nuclear competition with China and Russia, while Russia’s actions in Ukraine obstruct any meaningful agreement. China’s lack of transparency and determination to achieve nuclear parity with the United States further complicates the situation. Without the domestic political pressure to avoid an arms race and the recognition of the potential consequences of failing to meet on America’s terms, the Biden administration’s pursuit of arms control is unlikely to replicate the breakthrough diplomacy of the Washington Treaty.

However, the Washington Treaty offers a valuable lesson for the long-term viability of arms control: breakthroughs in arms control depend on rivals’ apprehension of American power. The United States must prioritize strengthening its deterrence and military capabilities to meet the challenges posed by China and Russia. This recapitalization not only enhances American national security but also holds the best possibility for future arms control success.

By reflecting on the history of the Washington Naval Treaty and the domestic political conditions that favored its success, American leaders can chart a path forward that addresses the current challenges and aspirations for arms control.


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