Skip to main content

Arms Control as Uncertainty Management

Back to All Publications

For decades or longer, policy-makers have sought to use arms control to reduce the uncertainty endemic to the international security environment. Because uncertainty is pervasive in these situations, however, practitioners themselves are naturally vulnerable to its effects. This paper seeks to help policy-makers optimize arms control outcomes by providing improved theory and best practices for goal-setting and strategy selection using the judicious application of decision theoretic concepts. The paper first lays out a suitable role for decision theory in the study and analysis of arms control, arguing that “uncertainty” is a more appropriate concept for description and analysis here than is “risk.” Prior approaches that rely on “risk” have tended to drive the search for arms control best practices, but “risk” requires the use of probability estimates that are frequently not available or not a good indicator of potential outcomes. Second, the paper argues that decision-makers are vulnerable to the effects of missing information and the uncertainty it causes in the run-up to and during arms control negotiations. Consequently, they are subject to biases and resort to the use of security-specific heuristics, including worst-case scenario thinking, limited-theater-of-war thinking, and low-dimension (or non-complex) thinking when setting goals and employing strategies for negotiating arms control agreements. The paper discusses the origins of this uncertainty and the strategies that states could employ as a result of these security-specific heuristics, arguing that they can best be grouped into two types—risk reduction versus uncertainty management. Finally, the paper makes recommendations for optimizing outcomes—for getting efficient negotiations that result in robust, durable agreements, capable of managing uncertainty about security, despite the effects of missing information.  

View All Publications