Controlling Tomorrow: Explaining Anticipatory Bans on Emerging Military Technologies

Posted: 23 Jul 2019 Last revised: 22 Jan 2021

See all articles by Justin Key Canfil

Justin Key Canfil

Columbia University, Department of Political Science; Harvard Kennedy School

Date Written: March 13, 2019


The idea that technology perennially outpaces law has in recent years become a trope, yet states have on numerous occasions succeeded in enacting binding limitations on new military technologies before their technical viability. These improbable successes are puzzling: if research and design is costly, and the designers of laws can think ahead, why isn't anticipatory arms control the norm? This article offers a formal theory to explain why states expend resources on weapons destined for the scrapheap. Anticipatory bargains are a hedging strategy for decisionmakers with pessimistic imaginations about the future of the security environment, informed by competing interagency priorities. As technologies approach their emergence point and more is learned, decisionmakers learn the true state of the world. Early pessimism can drive preferences for anticipatory cooperation, whereas misplaced optimism can derail agreements that would otherwise be preferable. Meanwhile, deferring is risky because opponents who benefit are reluctant to return to the negotiating table. The theory is tested on four carefully selected comparative case studies, drawn from declassified government records at seven archives. Importantly, the findings show that these basic internal considerations prevail even when default prerequisites for escaping the Prisoner's Dilemma -- trust, flexibility provisions, verifiability, and distinguishability, all long-believed to be necessary conditions for international cooperation -- are not satisfied. A sharper focus on anticipatory arms control places ongoing debates over the governance of 21st century military technologies, and how states can be enticed to the bargaining table, in broader perspective.

Keywords: international law, arms control, diplomacy, national security, emerging technology, military innovation, game theory, survey experiments, disarmament, nuclear strategy, defense, foreign policy

Suggested Citation

Canfil, Justin Key, Controlling Tomorrow: Explaining Anticipatory Bans on Emerging Military Technologies (March 13, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Justin Key Canfil (Contact Author)

Columbia University, Department of Political Science ( email )

New York, NY
United States

Harvard Kennedy School

79 JFK Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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